DogPhone could empower ‘pandemic pups’ to stay in touch with their owners

DogPhone inventor Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, of the University of Glasgow, and her 10-year-old labrador, Zack.

The invention of a device which helps pets place video calls to their owners, dubbed DogPhone, is the first of its kind to empower animals to use the internet to contact their owners. 

In the future, its creators say, it could help address the separation anxiety of pets who have grown used to having people at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

DogPhone is the result of a collaboration between Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, of the University of Glasgow, and her 10-year-old labrador, Zack, along with colleagues from Aalto University in Finland.

The results of Zack’s interactions with a prototype DogPhone are the focus of a research paper she delivered at the recent 2021 ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces Conference in Łódź, Poland.

DogPhone allows Zack to call Dr Hirskyj-Douglas by picking up and shaking a ball fitted with an accelerometer. When the accelerometer senses movement, it initiates a video call on a laptop in their living room allowing Zack to see and interact with his owner whenever he chooses. Zack’s owner can also use the system to call him, and he is free to answer or ignore the call.

“There are hundreds of internet-connected ‘smart toys’ on the market that dog owners can buy for their pets,” Dr Hirskyj-Douglas said.

“However, the vast majority of them are built with the needs of dog owners in mind, allowing them to observe or interact with their pets while away from home. Very few of them seem to consider what dogs themselves might want, or how technology might benefit them as living beings with thoughts and feelings of their own. 

“What I wanted to do with DogPhone was find a way to turn Zack from a ‘usee’ of technology, where he has no choice or control over how he interacts with devices, into a ‘user’, where he could make active decisions about when, where, and how he placed a call.”

In order to make a device that Zack would find appealing, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas paid close attention to the kinds of objects that Zack likes to play with, and the textures he enjoys touching. After considering the possibility of a stick or a stuffed toy, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas chose a soft ball as the form Zack was most likely to want to interact with. 

With the help of colleagues from Aalto University, Dr Hirskyj-Douglas built an internet-connected accelerometer which could be concealed inside the ball. After several demonstrations of how the ball could be used to start a video call, Zack was given the ball to play with over 16 study days spread over three months.

While many of the calls during the experiment seemed accidental, there was also more significant interaction between Zack and Dr Hirskyj-Douglas, who used her phone to show him her environment, including her office, a restaurant, an underground station, and a street busker. Zack showed additional interest in these interactions, pricking up his ears and approaching the screen. 

“Of course, we can’t know for sure that Zack was aware of the causal link between picking up the ball and making a call, or even that some the interactions which seemed accidental were actually unintended on his part,” Dr Hirskyj-Douglas said.

“However, it’s clear that on some occasions he was definitely interested in what he was seeing, and that he displayed some of the same behaviours he shows when we are physically together.”


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