Plugged-In Pets

How animal-aimed technology will transform the lives of our furry friends.

“Where are you?” whimpers Bowser, his yelps growing louder and more anxious with each passing second. Miles away, your phone vibrates with a telltale buzz. “Where are you?” reads the text message sent from your dog.

Bowser’s message and tween-level texting ability are not the result of magic or spontaneously generated thumbs. Rather, your dog inhabits a near future where scientists and technologists have teamed up to make our pets as connected as we are.

A prototype of the first bark-to-speech device, called the No More Woof, was crowd-funded earlier this year. Other companies are developing connected pet toys that enable you to entertain your animal from afar. The American Pet Products Association estimates that pet owners in the U.S. spent more than $55 billion on their furry darlings in 2013 alone. If Fifi has a Louis Vuitton leash, how long before she gets her own Nike Fuelband?

No More Woof, prototype version 3

No More Woof, prototype version 3

Imagine a Fitbit-like collar clip-on that incorporates a set of accelerometers collecting information on your pet’s exercise and sleeping habits. The information is wirelessly uploaded to an app enabling you to track Fifi’s activity throughout the day, even at work. Anomalous signals would prompt alerts sent to the owner’s inbox: “Fifi didn’t get enough walks this week. Go grab the leash.”

Competitive pet owners will compare metrics online, posting about Bowser’s agility score like parents boasting about the GPA of their over-achieving child. Pre-designed infographics will let owners track a dog’s progress from puppyhood, creating a sleek digital scrapbook of measured moments.

This collection of doggie data will inevitably lead to better-trained canines as owners and trainers turn to apps that determine the optimal conditions of positive reinforcement. The next generation of animal EEG monitors will show that Bowser prefers a back scratch to edible treats and that his rewards have to be given within five seconds of performing a task correctly. Assistance dogs are already bred to alert epileptics when they sense an oncoming seizure. Why not train them to use a connected harness to alert the hospital as well?

Cat owners will outfit their feline friends with collars generating a daily map of the cat’s meanderings through the neighborhood. Programmable collars will take pictures of the route or chime every time Mr. Whiskers begins stalking another goldfinch.

But the most tantalizing possibility of the emerging pet-tech field is the idea of tapping into the emotional lives of our animals. The No More Woof uses an EEG sensor incorporated into a telemarketer-like doggie headset. The sensor monitors the dog’s brain activity and a microcomputer translates it into human speech blared from built-in speaker. The lab that created No More Woof claims to have identified brain patterns that correlate to “I’m Tired,” “I’m Excited,” and “I’m Hungry.”

When this technology gets good enough (and it will), new modes of interaction will change pets themselves. We domesticated cats and created dogs through selective breeding, favoring traits like affection and beauty. Studies have shown that as few as five generations of selective breeding can dramatically change the genetic and behavioral expression of foxes. In the future, technology-oriented breeding could advance canines beyond “I’m Excited” to more complicated sentiments. How long until the most tech-savvy pets are interbred into highly connected companions, capable of uncanny digital integration?

What if the next breakthrough in responsive devices was a pet-computer cyborg? Instead of trying to generate emotionally interactive artificial intelligences, perhaps we should focus instead on integrating technology with the human-dependent animals that already surround us.

Is pet-tech your catnip? Here’s more:


New Devices Mind Pets While Owners Are Away
New York Times article on connected collars, pet doors, and feeders


More about feline emotions
Terri Gross talks to John Bradshaw about his book Cat Sense


Katherine C. Grier’s book Pets in America: A History
The history of pet toys in America


Dr. Meow Cat Bowties
Snazz-up your classy cat with a collar from Real Mart

Image of Burt the Grey Tabby Kitten was provided by The Found Animals Foundation. This image has been modified.

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