The system, dubbed DogPhone, works when a pet picks up and shakes a ball fitted with an accelerometer. When the accelerometer senses movement, it prompts a video call on a screen connected to the device.
Believed to be the first of its kind, the invention is the brainchild of the University of Glasgow lecturer Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, her 10-year-old labrador, Zack, and colleagues from Aalto University in Finland.
The team behind the pet-friendly invention said the DogPhone could help address the separation anxiety of pets who have grown used to having people at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hirskyj-Douglas explained: “There are hundreds of internet-connected ‘smart toys’ on the market that dog owners can buy for their pets. But 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.”
The specialist in animal-computer interaction at the university’s School of Computing, however, said that very few smart toys consider what dogs themselves might want, or how technology might benefit them as living beings with thoughts and feelings of their own.
In a trial, Zack called Hirskyj-Douglas by picking up and shaking a ball fitted with an accelerometer; this prompted a video call on a laptop in her living room.
“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,” she said.
After several demonstrations observing how the ball could be used to start a video call, Zack was then given the toy to play with for 16 days, spread over three months.
While Zack made some “accidental” calls when he slept on the ball, the researchers said several of the calls involved the dog showing his owner his toys and approaching the screen. This suggests he wanted to interact with her.
Hirskyj-Douglas responded using her phone to show Zack her environment, including her office, a restaurant, and a street busker, during which the dog pricked up his ears and approached the screen.
“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 interactions which seemed accidental were actually unintended on his part,” she explained. “But 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.”
Hirskyj-Douglas found that one unexpected consequence of the experiment was that she sometimes found herself anxious when she placed a call to Zack and he wasn’t in front of the camera or he didn’t approach the screen.
“I hadn’t considered that this might be a consequence of the two-way communication that DogPhone creates,” she explained, “and it’s something to consider for the next iteration of the system.”
She said the device could help ‘pandemic puppies’ – dogs bought, or adopted, during Covid lockdowns – to find new ways to deal with the stress of being home alone as their owners return to work.