Standing in a lush yard under a sunny blue sky, I looked down and there he was: a brown-and-white Welsh corgi with pointy ears and beaming eyes. I patted his head and scratched his furry neck. He rolled over—tongue lolling, paws waving in the air—as I rubbed his belly. I wanted to take him home but I couldn’t: He wasn’t real.

He was Peanut, the star of RoVR—a virtual-reality game that lets players experience the joys of pet ownership, without the actual pet. I was seeing him through virtual-reality goggles, and using two controllers to manipulate onscreen hands to put Peanut on a leash and dress him in PJs.

It was surprisingly satisfying. “Just being in the presence of this thing that you perceive as being alive, that loves you and is happy to see you, has a really positive emotional impact,” Henry Zhou, E17, told me. He’s the cocreator of RoVR and cofounder of the game-development startup Ridgeline Labs. “I think the reason goes deep into our evolutionary history—as social creatures, we feel this sense of ease when we’re with another living thing we can trust, especially a dog.”

Little wonder, then, that RoVR—pronounced “rover”—has been met with giddy enthusiasm. In March, Zhou and company cofounder Jeremy Slavitz, E17, participated in Play Labs, a new MIT startup accelerator. Things have gone so well that they are now focused on bringing RoVR to market and establishing a headquarters in San Francisco.

Growing up, Zhou loved playing with pals’ pups and longed for his own, but his parents were wary of vet fees, furniture damage, and commitment. So Zhou focused on other interests, namely computers and gaming. He declared a computer science major at Tufts, attended virtual-reality meetups, and led workshops to get people interested in the technology. The winter of his junior year, he tried a prototype for the HTC Vive virtual-reality headset. “I was like, This is going to change the world,” he said.

Henry Zhou and Jeremy Slavitz

Henry Zhou and Jeremy Slavitz of Ridgeline Labs. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Slavitz, meanwhile, shared both Zhou’s unfulfilled childhood desire for a dog and his passion for game development and VR. While pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, Slavitz spent his free time creating Metamorphosis, a game for the Oculus VR platform that caught the attention of people at the company, who sent him a free system.

In his junior year, Slavitz switched majors to computer science and met Zhou. For their senior design project, they wanted to develop a VR game that stood apart from the shooter and zombie-fighting games, which are marketed largely to men. Zhou immediately thought of a simulated puppy—an idea that netted a $1,000 prize in the Tufts Gordon Institute Ideas Competition.

With the idea in place, Zhou and Slavitz began their research by volunteering with Animal Aid, a program linking area pet owners with Jumbo dog walkers. Zhou spent his summer internship money on a Vive system, and then used YouTube tutorials and consultations with a friend to build a computer that could run it. From there, Slavitz and Zhou got down to work, usually in the unheated attic of Zhou’s off-campus house. “We were wrapped up in jackets and blankets just writing code,” Slavitz said.

The months of hard work yielded a RoVR prototype. In March, they got the good news from Play Labs, which resulted in an MIT office for the summer, connections to gaming startup giants, and $20,000, which they used to hire artists, modelers, and animators.

Zhou and Slavitz have now shifted their efforts to marketing, fundraising, social media, and a new game trailer. While they scout Bay Area locations, they hope to upgrade Peanut with machine-learning capabilities. (In other words, the pooch will increasingly customize its behavior based on data collected from interactions.) If all goes well, RoVR will soon hit the market—first as an augmented-reality iPhone game, followed by the full-blown VR version.

But Zhou hasn’t abandoned his childhood dream yet. Someday he will adopt a dog, perhaps a rescue corgi. “I’m a firm believer in love at first sight,” he said.

Monica Jimenez

Monica Jimenez, editor of One Tufts and Tufts Magazine's Connect section and writer at Tufts, can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.