Assistance dogs play critical roles for humans, from sniffing out improvised explosive devices to assisting the visually impaired. These specially trained dogs can recognize dozens of nuanced commands like "Under," which instructs the dog to lie down beneath, say, a table until it's told to move, or "Find help," which instructs the dog to run to the nearest person and signify their handler needs assistance. Now, a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is working on a wearable computing device that will allow the dogs themselves to "talk" back to their handlers via devices like Google Glass.
The team behind FIDO, or "Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations," is testing vests equipped with sensors that assistance dogs can trigger by tugging, biting, and using their noses. So far, the researchers have only tested one sensor per vest to prevent bias in the research—but the eventual goal is to design a single wearable item equipped with several of these sensors, each sensor capable of communicating a unique piece of information to a human wearing a heads-up display like Google Glass.
As lead researcher Melody Jackson envisions it, "A bomb sniffing dog could tell you what kind of bomb you have. A search and rescue dog could pull something on their vest and have it geolocate and tell you exactly where that person is."
Jackson, who has raised several puppies for the assistance dogs nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, says Google is not currently involved with FIDO. A seed grant from Georgia Tech will allow the researchers to purchase a Google Glass device or another heads-up display handlers can wear to receive information when the dogs trigger the vest's sensors.
"It makes sense that if you have your dog out there doing things, it'd be nice to have a heads-up display and get feedback in real time, even just a GPS alert where you could see a map of where your dog was," says Thad Starner, another FIDO researcher who is also a technical adviser to the Google Glass team and has been making wearables for two decades—though this is the first time he's attempted to create devices that could help dogs communicate with their masters.
The advantage of a heads-up display-based communication system is that it allows the handler to work remotely from the animal, which promotes a safer working environment for people who work with, for example, bomb-sniffing dogs, Starner says.
So far, the researchers have had success testing FIDO with two border collies and a Labrador retriever, breeds often chosen for assistance dog training. The border collies in particular have been quick to learn, Starner says, requiring just 15 minutes to pick up on each new sensor interaction. The tests have proven that dogs' diverse personalities need to be taken into consideration when designing canine-centric technology. For example, when testing one of the bite-based sensors, one border collie identified the exact mouth sensation that triggered the sensor—but the other border collie figured if he just kept biting down, he would eventually activate the correct part of the device.
The vests are certainly not ready for the field yet, the researchers say. One big design challenge they're currently working to solve is how to refine the sensor designs to universally fit different breeds. Labrador retrievers, for example, are genetically designed to have soft mouths that minimally disturb the item they're retrieving, whether that's a bird or a pair of socks. Therefore, the Labrador the researchers used in their initial tests had more trouble activating the bite-based sensors than the border collies did.
But Jackson anticipates FIDO could open up a line of communication between dogs and humans that has never been available before.
"The more we think of the applications, the more appealing it becomes. This could be a game changer with life-changing applications," she says.