While humans are the only creatures on Earth endowed with the faculty of speech, the ability of other animals to communicate with each other as well as with us cannot be ignored. Perhaps, we might even break this barrier future in the future. A new study might have paved the way for this: scientists from North Carolina State University have created a technology to enhance interactions between humans and their favourite pet, dogs.
Researchers from the computer science and electrical and computer engineering departments and the College of Veterinary Medicine cooperated to design the technology – the smart harness – to be used to improve communication between humans and dogs.
“We are developing what we are referring to as a ‘smart harness’ and you can think of it as a platform for two-way computer-mediated communication between dogs and handlers,” says Dr David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science whose dog Diesel is one of their primary lab partners.
The smart harness is meant to be fitted onto the dog’s back. It consists of a twin battery on both sides of the dog, a webcam, vibrating motors, a wireless USB adapter, as well as other devices.
A tablet is used to send signals to the harness and to the dog. The researchers then observe the reactions of the dog and its interpretations of the modes of interactions.
For instance, Diesel, the dog the researchers are training to test the device, was made to link the vibrating buzz with hand signals given by the researchers. A tablet was used to prompt the vibration on one side of the dog to direct him to turn. Then, another researcher made hand signs to further direct the dog to do the action of turning to the side they wanted him to.
“We’re using this technology to ask some very fundamental questions about the nature of the way animals can perceive computer-mediated communications and the way they can interact with computers in order to send digital signals across wireless communication links to handlers,” Roberts says.
The researchers believe their technology can be applied to search and rescue dogs, and to train pets.
“Just as one example, this project gives us the capability for the dog to inform us of that sort of information and for us to evaluate the dog’s welfare. Is it overheating? Is it in a safe area? So with interfaces on the dog, we can keep the dog safer and be more sensitive to the subtle information that the dog is communicating to us,” says Dr. Barbara Sherman, a clinical professor of behavioral medicine.
“Our dream is to give people the capability to train their dogs like professionals at home, so that the pets can be turned into working animals. For example, for search and rescue, when there’s a big disaster in an urban environment, hundreds of houses collapsed, and there’s only a certain number of trained dogs, so this would give us the capability to train more and more dogs for such purposes,” says Dr. Alpert Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.