The results of Zack’s interactions with a prototype DogPhone were the focus of a research paper delivered on Nov. 17 at the 2021 ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces Conference in Łódź, Poland. The system works by the dog picking up and shaking a ball fitted with an accelerometer, which senses movement and initiates a video call through a laptop allowing the dog to see and interact with their owner whenever they choose. The system can also be used to call the dog, and they can choose to “answer or ignore the call,” the university said.
A researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland has developed a new technology that allows dogs to make video calls to their owners. According to a news release from the University, the system, called the DogPhone, is the first of its type to allow animals to communicate with their owners via the internet. The system’s designers believe it could help pets who have become accustomed to having people at home during the coronavirus pandemic deal with separation anxiety. DogPhone is the outcome of a cooperation between University of Glasgow’s Ilyena Hirskyi-Douglas and her 10-year-old Labrador, Zack, as well as academics from Finland’s Aalto University. Hirskyi-Douglas is an anima expert.
“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,” Hirskyi-Douglas said in a statement. Hirskyi-Douglas chose to use a soft ball for the system after paying attention to which objects her dog enjoyed playing with and the textures the dog enjoyed touching. With the help of colleagues from Aalto University, Hirskyi-Douglas built an internet-connected accelerometer concealed inside the ball and the dog was given the ball to play with over 16 study days spread over three months after several demonstrations.
The second phase lasted seven days, during which only two calls were placed, suggesting sensitivity had gone too far the other way for the system. In the third phase, lasting another seven days, the accelerometer was refined, and an average of five calls per day were placed, resulting in more significant interaction between the dog and Hirskyi-Douglas, although many calls seemed accidental.
In the first iteration, the dog made 18 calls, half of which were placed while the dog was sleeping on the ball, suggesting the system was too sensitive. During several of the calls where Zack was awake, the dog interacted with the screen, showing toys he and Hirskyi-Douglas often played with.
“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,” Hirskyi-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.
“One unexpected consequence of the experiment is that I sometimes found myself unexpectedly anxious when I placed a call to Zack and he wasn’t in front of the camera or he didn’t approach the screen,” Hirskyi-Douglas continued. “I hadn’t considered that this might be a consequence of the two-way communication that DogPhone creates, and it’s something to consider for the next iteration of the system.”