When attorney Rod Ponton showed up for a virtual court hearing over Zoom on Tuesday, he quickly realized something was wrong. While in real life he is a human, to other participants of the video call — including Judge Roy B. Ferguson of the 394th Judicial District Court in Texas — he looked like a cat. Specifically, a white cat with gray markings and large, despairing eyes.
“Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in the video settings,” the judge said.
The tearful-looking kitten opened its mouth, but said nothing, as its eyes darted back and forth on the screen.
“Can you hear me, judge?” Ponton asked, appearing as the forlorn feline.
“I’m here, live, I’m not a cat,” he said a few seconds later.
The exchange, which lasted less than a minute until the filter was turned off and Ponton regained his human form, ricocheted across the internet on Tuesday after it was posted to the court’s YouTube channel. Beyond the fits of laughter it invariably provoked in viewers, it presented some questions that even Ponton couldn’t answer: How did it happen? And where can other people get that adorable cat filter?
Reached Wednesday by phone, Ponton — who told CNN Business he did not currently look like a cat — was able to provide some more details about what happened. He said he had no idea how the cat filter ended up superimposed on his face, and that while waiting for the meeting to start, his face looked normal, as he could see it on his own computer monitor.
“Somehow, when I got called into court, I miraculously transformed into a cat,” he said.
This lasted for about 42 seconds until it was somehow turned off. That time, he said, “seemed like an eternity.”
As for the cat filter, it’s not one that’s built into Zoom, and it isn’t one you can find by searching Snap Camera, which is an application commonly used with Zoom that can add filters (Snap calls them “lenses”) around or atop your face during a video chat. It turns out to be much older technology: Some internet sleuthing led to multiple suggestions that the filter Ponton accidentally used appears to be from a tool known as Live! Cam Avatar that was used with old Dell webcam software called Dell Webcam Manager. One Twitter user even posted that a similar cat-astrophe happened to them during a job interview via Skype years ago.
You can see a picture of the cat in this 2007 Dell product guide for a computer monitor with an integrated webcam, which is hosted on Dell’s site. “With the Live! Cam Avatar, user is able to disguise as a movie star, furry friend or any customized animated character during video chatting,” the guide boasts, adding it uses “intelligent face tracking” to follow the user’s head movements “and lip sync anything that is being said instantly.” A YouTube video from 2010 gives a good sense for how it works in non-virtual-courtroom settings.
This makes sense as the source of the filter to Ponton, considering the equipment he was using during that fateful Zoom call was, to his recollection, about 10 years old. He said he conducted the meeting on his secretary’s old Dell desktop computer at an office in Presidio, Texas (rather than at his main office, which is in Marfa), along with a Dell monitor that has a built-in webcam. (His laptop, he said, was being used elsewhere at the time, for another meeting.)
His secretary, he said, is embarrassed about the whole cat-filter situation. “She wants to go hide under a bed,” he said with a chuckle, citing a classic cat behavior.
The Dell webcam software is hard to find these days. But CNN Business was able to see it in action during a Zoom call with Thomas Smith, the CEO of AI photography company Gado Images and a tech journalist (and briefly, in this case, a cat). When Smith learned the feline filter appeared to be from old Dell webcam software, he dug through a bin of gadgets at his Lafayette, California, home and found a Dell laptop from around 2009. He plugged it in, booted it up with the Windows 7 operating system, and found the Dell webcam software he was looking for — complete with “the sad kitten,” as he called it.
Smith, who wrote about the filter for the tech website Debugger, noted that curious filter fans can find the software online and download it to their PCs (sorry, Mac users). But the software doesn’t appear to let you use an avatar such as the kitten over your face to stream live via a webcam the same way Ponton accidentally did, Smith said. Rather, you can either record your own video of the kitten filter appearing on your face, or use the filter in a video call by sharing your screen with other viewers (he did this during our call).
As for Ponton, he hasn’t been able to find the cat filter on the computer since. He tried searching the old Dell computer for the webcam software during an interview with CNN Business, but the machine hadn’t finished its search by the time the interview was done. If he does track it down, he said, he’s planning to use it again.