We are becoming a species obsessed with data. Not content with monitoring our own sleeping, eating and exercising habits, many of us could soon be tracking the lives of our pets, too. Where did your cat go last night? How many calories did your dog eat today? What is your snake thinking? Knowing the answers to such questions – well, the first two, anyway – is becoming ever easier, and the advantages of doing so are increasing.
This week, the insurance giant RSA invested in a company called PitPatPet, which makes the PitPat, a wearable activity monitor for dogs. In the same way that technology has been used to monitor drivers’ behaviour and price their insurance accordingly, the PitPat can feed back information on your dog’s activity level and food intake – healthier dogs may earn their owners a lower pet-insurance premium.
“There are a lot of challenges with dogs at the moment,” says Andrew Nowell, one of the founders of PitPat, who previously worked on wearable tech for humans. “About 4 million of the UK’s 9 million dogs are obese, and about 25% are left home alone. So in terms of pet care, it’s deteriorating. At the same time, vets’ bills are rising each year, and as a knock-on, insurance premiums are rising. Our premise is basically to help owners keep their dogs fit and active in a fun way, which not only benefits them, but also helps other companies, like insurers, lower their costs.”
The company is using this data to build a huge database on dogs “so we can understand what makes one labrador healthy and another obese; why certain conditions affect [some] breeds more than others”.
Technology has long been used for animals, such as the electronic tagging of birds and bees for research, or the “ingestibles” that sit in dairy cows’ stomachs and provide information on maximising milk production. But the pet-tech market is growing rapidly – one report estimated the worldwide pet wearable market would hit $2.3bn by 2022.
Nowell is working on other products, including a PitPat for cats, which will tell you where your cat has been (and which neighbours have been feeding it), and a tracker for stolen dogs. Other companies are pushing more outlandish ideas, such as products that can read your dog’s brain waves and translate them into human words, or read your pets’ emotions. Also in development is a smart vest to help service dogs attract help for their humans, and the animal computer interaction design research group at the University of Central Lancashire is working on creating media for dogs (they like watching videos of other dogs, but don’t have the attention span for long films).
Where will it end? Ian Pearson, a futurologist, thinks it won’t be too difficult to develop an AI programme such as Amazon’s Alexa to get to know your pet’s sounds and “translate” them into basic statements, such as telling you they’re hungry or in pain – though he points out many owners can already read these noises. He pictures devices that will remotely take your dog for a walk for you, using commands. “You could easily do that with a GPS device, so that a dog can walk through a forest and turn left when he gets to a fork in the path. Your dog could go for a walk all by itself.” Perhaps, he says, “if you were a mad scientist type, you could theoretically put little patches on the dog’s leg to activate the muscles to actually make it go for a walk. I wouldn’t encourage doing that. You’d have the RSPCA on your doorstep very quickly.”
It’s clear our pets aren’t going to escape the advent of wearable tech. Here are a few of the many gadgets to look out for:
See the world through your dog’s eyes, which could basically mean close-ups of dead stuff it sniffs, people’s crotches and other dog’s bottoms. Or get video evidence that your dogwalker is actually taking your mutt out, instead of sitting in your house eating your biscuits. And – surely the dream of any modern pet owner – upload the footage and turn your dog into a social media star. Wearable cameras are here, such as the GoPro Fetch, a harness for your dog that allows you to attach a GoPro camera, or the Eyenimal Cat Videocam, which attaches to a cat’s collar and can shoot in the dark if your moggie is a night prowler.
There are a number of collar-worn monitors for dogs on the market, which can track things such as how much exercise your dog gets and how well it is sleeping (which can be, say manufacturers, an early sign of illness). They include PitPat, the WonderWoof bowtie and FitBark. With many of them, the accompanying apps also means you can share the minutiae of your dog’s life with others.
There is now a wide range of pet trackers that use GPS to pinpoint your pet’s whereabouts and send it to your smartphone. Some have added features, such as the Motorola Scout 5000, which allows you to talk to your dog from afar. You can also set a virtual fence with some trackers, which alert you when your dog steps outside a certain area. For cats, the Tabcat tracker uses radio frequency technology to track your cat within a range of 122m. You can also send a beep to the device, worn on the collar, to train them to come home.
Pet emotion sensors
Is your dog happy? What is the meaning of your cat’s life? Several devices seek to get closer to these answers by taking the emotional temperature of your pet. None are yet on the market – they are still in the development or crowdfunding stage – but one day you should be able to buy an Inupathy collar, which uses heart-rate monitoring to show your pet’s mood by changing colour, or a DogStar TailTalk, which helps you understand your dog’s “complex tail language” by using a strange kind of tail belt to monitor its wagginess.
A variety of translation devices, usually worn on a collar, have been revealed in their development or crowdfunding stages, and claim they will be able to translate your dog’s bark or even its brain waves into humanspeak, though so far – unsurprisingly – they have failed to materialise. One, the BowLingual, a Japanese invention that claimed to be able to translate from dog-to-human, briefly appeared on the market in 2002, but seems to have disappeared. What would your dog say, anyway? Probably something along the lines of “Get this stupid camera off my head and let me watch TV in peace.”
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