Parting with a pet is tough for both owners and their furry friends but now there’s a way to keep you both feeling less lonely. PlayDate is a smart ball that is connected via WiFi and a mobile app, so that you can roll it around – using onscreen controls – to keep your favorite critter entertained for hours on end. You can even communicate with your pet via a wide angle HD camera, speaker and microphone, as well as a squeaker. It’s like you never left the room. Kevin Li, co-founder and CEO of PlayDate, explains how the new tech can keep you in touch with your nearest and dearest. 

Why did you create this unique device for pets?

It started back in 2013 when I fostered a dog, Hulk, that I ended up adopting. I really wanted him to grow up well adjusted, so I wanted to make sure I took him on a bunch of different paths around New York City, making sure he experienced a variety of sights, sounds and other dogs. Back then there weren't any activity trackers so I built one and started tracking his behavior around the city. But talking to dog owners around the city, the feedback that kept coming back was "I feel guilty leaving my dog home alone all day." And that's when we realized that the bigger pain point was dog owners needed a better way to connect with their pets remotely. Thus PlayDate was born.

Is the device primarily intended for pets or for their owners? 

PlayDate's smart ball is uniquely positioned to provide a great experience for both pets and owners. For pets, it provides a more natural way to play: the autonomous ball more closely simulates how dogs and cats would play in the wild while chasing after a squirrel or a mouse. For the owners, it provides a great new way to interact with their pets when away from home. And there's something incredibly satisfying about being able to manipulate a physical ball via the mobile app, knowing that you're connecting with your furry friend remotely.

Why should pet owners care about this device?

We're strong believers that technology should enhance interaction rather than replace it. As much as we love our pets, it's difficult to spend every moment with them. Technology has become advanced enough that it can help bridge the divide. But when it comes to interacting with man's best friend, it's through a nylon leash and a tennis ball.

How does PlayDate work?

Pet owners can control their PlayDate smart ball in the same way you might control a character in a smartphone game. There is a navigation controller on the left. On the right, there are buttons that trigger actions like playing a “squeak” or taking a picture or recording a video. Similar to a hamster ball, the PlayDate smart ball rolls around wherever the pet owner directs it. A stabilized camera inside lets the owner see all the action in smooth, real-time HD. And, a clear, replaceable outer shell protects the inner workings but allows the camera to see out clearly.

How durable is the ball? 

My dog, Hulk, loves to chew on anything and everything, so durability was a key design consideration. That's why the outer shell is made of shatterproof, thick polycarbonate, similar to what's used in treat dispensers. Since it's shatterproof, it's incredibly safe. And over time, you can replace just the outer shell, prolonging the life of the ball.

PlayDate smart ball is available on Indiegogo for $129 and will hit retail stores in early 2017.