When it comes to household animals, dogs continue to be the preferred choice of pets globally. And wherever there is a home with a canine, the dog is usually considered a member of the family. So it does not come as a surprise when more than a third of dog-owning Americans admitted to buying birthday gifts for their dogs (with the occasional celebrity building a two-storey mansion for her dogs). With the global pet products and services industry surpassing the $100 billion mark for the first time in 2016, electronic toys and gadgets are being considered as must-haves for the “tech-savvy” dog (?!)
Consider the following gizmos: TailTalk is touted “the world’s dog emotion sensor” by capturing tail movement and translating it to the emotions that our dogs want to convey. FitBark monitors activity levels of your dog and calculates calories burned. Whistle is intended as a “smart” way to keep track of your pet’s location.
But did our dogs ask for these “gifts” in the first place? Do they even understand these technologies? More importantly, what do these gadgets mean for the autonomy of the animal? By subjecting our pets to technologies that we use daily, are we prioritizing the comfort and entertainment of the owner over the welfare of the animal?
Increasingly, everyday human technologies are being re-configured to be used by other species. In the products listed above, the devices are attached to the dogs’ bodies and used to record data. In the era of the Internet of Things, dogs have been arguably reduced to “things” – just another source of data to be sensed and recorded. Even though owners may feel that these “smart” devices help keep track of their dogs’ health and well-being, the outcomes for efficiency and success of such products are defined in terms of human attributes.
Is it possible to design pet-care products for dogs using attributes unique to dogs? Dr. Ben Kirman and his colleagues explored this question through The Dog Internet, a research project which asked what an “Internet for Dogs” would look like. They developed a series of prototypes for canine users, and revealed some of the unique challenges presented when humans design consumer technology for non-human species. “Our primary concern”, Dr. Ben Kirman reveals, “is for the dogs as end-users, who are often subjected to technology rather than engaging with it in their own terms. Imagine what would happen if a dog could create digital technology for a human – would we benefit or even understand it?”
The team designed to engage with this specific issue by designing technology that are accessible to dogs but not to humans, something similar to the text CAPTCHA in internet forms which asks the user to prove she is a human and not a robot. To explicitly restrict human access, the researchers decided to focus on the uniqueness of a dog when compared to a human – the dog’s strong sense of smell.
Remember the Secret Life of Pets? What if dogs wanted to be alerted when their owners are returning home and in the neighbourhood? What if the dogs wanted to stop whatever naughty thing they were up to and resume acting normal when the owners returned home? The project developed the winsome Dog RADAR as a solution to this “key” problem.
The DOG RADAR looks like an ordinary squeaky toy to the humans, but it is actually a microcomputer. It uses high frequency audio to detect the presence of the owner’s phone, upto a distance of 1km. When the owners enter within the radius of 1km, the LED lights in the RADAR light up and generate a high pitched whistle audible to dogs but not to humans. Thus the dog is alerted to the presence of her owner. However, when the human is close enough (within 500m) the toy returns to its ordinary state of a squeaky toy – no lights, no whistle – thus concealing its utility to the owner. This makes it a perfect gadget to the dog that likes to party when the owner is away.
This prototype (as well as the other models developed by the team) may appear to be funny or even absurd. But the project reveals the challenges in designing technologies only for the animal and not based on what humans imagine to be their pet’s need. Non-human centred design also reveals other ethical challenges which are seldom considered in the pet care products, such as autonomy, privacy and consent of the animal.
The next time you decide to buy that awesome toy on the holiday buying guide for cats and dogs, think again. We might simply be imposing our commercial technologies upon our pets – technologies which are seldom designed with our pets in mind but our own comfort and leisure.