Feature Story

Pet Tech Innovations

by Anne Field

A new generation of startups are using everything from mobile technology to the Internet of Everything to forge a stronger bond between pets and their owners.

At about $55 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association, the pet industry in the U.S. is booming. Still, startups until recently have been slow to apply new technologies to the market.

Now, a crop of startups are using technologies ranging from the Internet of Everything (IoE)  to mobile to create a new generation of products and services aimed at pet owners. Here's a look at some of them:

 Tracking Your Dog's Fitness Level—From Anywhere

As any pet owner knows, dogs are a little like babies: You often have to judge how they're feeling based on behavior.  Wouldn't it be great to have a technology that would provide a lot more insights, perhaps allowing you to measure your pet's activity over time and track the level of walking, playing and resting?

That's basically what the Whistle Activity Monitor does. The device attaches to a dog's collar, using motion sensors to keep track of activity and sending information wirelessly to an app on your phone. You can assess both day-to-day behavior and long-term health trends. "This is very much a baby monitor psychology," says Ben Jacobs, a co-founder of Whistle, the San Francisco startup that introduced the product a few months ago.  You can get a graphic snapshot of the day's activities— your dog took a short nap or a long walk—or of the past few months, to take to the vet. You also can compare your pooch's metrics to other critters based on breed, age and weight.

Ultimately, the technology is all about letting owners remotely keep their fingers on their dog's pulse, so to speak. Jacobs points to a researcher on a base in Antarctica who monitors her dog back in San Francisco, especially looking for evidence that her dog walker is taking her baby out for sufficiently frequent and long walks.

While You're Away, Your Pet Can Play

In 2012, Alex Neskin's neighbors were up in arms about  Rocky,  his Chihuahua, puppy. When Neskin, a programmer working in Kiev for a digital advertising agency,  was at the office, the pup would howl and scratch at the walls—relentlessly. The neighbors threatened to call the police if Neskin didn't do something  fast.

So Neskin decided to apply his technical skills to the problem. The dog, he figured, had separation anxiety and also was probably just plain bored.  Perhaps there was a way to keep him entertained. He had a brainstorm: attach a camera to an Arduino processing board, link it wirelessly to his computer and—presto—he would be able to see on his computer or smartphone what Rocky was up to.   He also added  a laser pointer to the camera which could be controlled remotely and used  to play with his pooch, along with audio capability allowing him to talk to the dog.

After pet owners started asking Neskin how they could have one of their own gizmos, Neskin realized he had the makings of a business. He teamed up with two colleagues, Yaroslave Azhniuk, CEO, and Andrey Klen, COO, and the three partners created a prototype. Called PetCube, it basically did what Neskin's original experiment accomplished. In a durable cube made with an aluminum casing are a wide angle camera for viewing, sensor motors, a circuit board, and a low intensity laser. Also included: a microphone and speakers for conversation. Dogs wag their tails when they hear their owner's voice, according to Klen.  Pet owners would control the laser pointer through an app on their smart phone. (Klen recommends keeping play sessions short , lest the dog become too frustrated.)

Remote Treats

Two tech industry veterans on the lookout for a startup idea, decided that "the pet industry wasn't utilizing tech in any substantial way," says David Clark.  "We wanted something simple, that would  bring  pets and owners closer together—with a smile." 

Clark and his colleagues came up with  PitziConnect, a web-enabled device about the size of a child's shoebox that you can control remotely via Wi-Fi. With it, you can call your dog or cat and see the animal on your smartphone, tablet or other screen. There's also a camera you can use to take a picture or make a video.

But the real payoff is something else:  Tap the button on your app and the unit will launch a treat. Dogs pretty quickly learn to stand away from the unit, in anticipation of an exciting goodie, according to Clark.  An extra: If you forgot to leave the lights on, the camera automatically will switch to infrared so you can see what's happening.

A Doggie Personality Test

Ever wonder what really  makes your dog tick? Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology,  head of Duke's Canine Cognition Center, and a dog lover, has made a career out of finding an answer. 

His studies attracted so much curiosity from dog owners, that he decided to team up with Kip Frey, a professor of law and public policy at Duke and a serial entrepreneur  to create Dognition, a web site allowing humans to assess "who is really sleeping at the end of their bed," says Locky Stewart, director of research. Launched about a year ago, the assessment, uses a series of games testing five areas—memory, empathy, communication, cunning and reasoning. One example: to test memory, you place a treat under one of two plastic cups. When the dog isn't looking, you switch cups. The goal: to see if the dog paws at the first cup—indicating the ability to remember—or the second, indicating the animal relies more on a sense of smell. (Dogs usually choose the first cup.) Then, based on your results and other data, Dognition produces a 15 to 17 page cognition and personality evaluation, placing the animal in one of nine types, such as "maverick" or "Einstein."

There's a data base of results from over 15,000 dogs, so users can compare their pooch's performance to that of the larger population or subsections—for example, other animals of the same breed. "We're all about bringing science to the people," says Stewart.


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