Last month, in anticipation of devouring a mountain of unhealthy food on Thanksgiving Day, my family decided to adopt a modern fitness gadget to keep us all in check. Well, not a fitness gadget for us, exactly, but for our dog Lulu.
The activity tracking device is called Whistle, and it acts as a sort of Nike FuelBand for your pet. Whistle is circular device, a bit thicker and heavier than an Oreo cookie, which straps to your dog’s collar to track his or her movements. It received a great deal of attention when the company first unveiled it over the summer, and has since been featured in an endless number of gift guides as the product nears hitting retail in 2014. (At $99, Whistle is available now for pre-order, though units have started to trickle out to early buyers.) But after having a chance to play around with Whistle, it's clear the device has many limits. They're common ones in the so-called "quantified-self" and "Internet of things" spaces: user fatigue and a sense that gadgets like Whistle offer nothing more than novelty.
First the human concerns. There's a string of devices now on the market designed to track and often quantify everything around us. There's Fitbit and Jawbone's Up, wearable computers that monitor steps and sleep patterns. There's Nest's smart thermostat, which tracks household energy use. And there's even devices like Parrot's Flower Power, a sensor that gardeners can stab into pots of soil to supervise plant health via iPhone, from water to temperature to light consumption.
For consumers, it might seem that entrepreneurs are trying to wire up everything to the Internet to make a buck: refrigerators and clothing, watches and glasses, dogs and babies. To some, these new devices and services might seem wholly unnecessary—the perfect excuse for a crotchety skeptic to begin a story with, "Back in my day ..." After all, do we really need to track everything through our mobile phones? When I speak to the developers behind these projects, they agree that not everything ought to be monitored with 23andMe-levels of detail. But they also realize there's a market for many of these devices and services—though what's worthy of our attention is still very much up for debate. Whistle is a great way to explore these issues—a device that can feel like Silicon Valley-thinking gone overboard, but a product that has practical applications for many customers too.
Now, a note on our canine test subject. Her name is Lulu. She's a rescue dog, so we're not exactly sure of her breed—we think a cross between a Finnish Spitz and a fox. At around 30 pounds, Lulu is a shrimp. But she's also very agile and energetic, mainly because of her fear of, well, everything—cats, Brooklyn, gentle breezes, most tall objects—which drives her to constantly run from non-existent yet ever-looming danger. And yes, Lulu is also a total cutie pie.
Like any new tech toy, the first thing you want to do with Whistle is play with it. The problem is that many of these kinds of products don't have great on-boarding processes. When you buy a Nike FuelBand, for example, you almost want to run around your apartment just to make sure the band measured those precious three calories you likely lost sprinting to the kitchen. And with a product like Nest Protect, the smart smoke and CO detector, the next best option is burning a bagel to see how the alarm reacts. Otherwise, well, Protect just hangs from the ceiling looking pretty after the initial set up.
Whistle is no different. After setting it up—which is a slight hassle involving Bluetooth and Wi-Fi syncing—you'll feel the need to make sure your pet is getting the most out of this $99 supplement. Lulu, who initially looked skeptical of her new collar attachment, was eventually persuaded to run around in exchange for a piece of turkey. Yet after a short dash or two, the Whistle app registered no activity. Was it broken? Nope. It turns out, Whistle only syncs with your iPhone every hour. Worse, Whistle rarely tracks indoor horseplay, so after several hours of moving about, Lulu had only logged a depressing four minutes of activity.
According to the company, this is intentional. "Our focus was to give you a sense of when your dog does meaningful activities—[not] roaming around the apartment for a few minutes here and there," says Eidelman. "But it's something we've heard from some of our early customers—giving immediate feedback."
He and cofounder Ben Jacobs say that changes are coming to Whistle that address this problem. For example, one of the app's primary features is to enable pet owners to compare their pooch's activity with that of other dogs. But that takes weeks of data collection—perhaps too long for users to stay interested.
By the end of her second day, Lulu finally achieved her goal of 35 minutes of daily activity. Whistle pushed a congratulatory note to my iPhone—woof! But on the second day, Lulu was lazy and failed by a few minutes. By the third day, she bounced back, registering 46 minutes of activity.
The problem, inevitably, is user engagement—not dog engagement. Obviously Lulu is not the one checking the Whistle app on her phone—her owners are. And after days of monitoring her activity, the novelty quickly wore off. Frankly, the data isn't that interesting—and most of it is simply obvious. Lulu averages, seemingly, about 30 to 40 minutes of activity a day; she putters around when no one is home; and she's damn lazy otherwise, resting a Rip-Van-Winkle-esque 16.4 hours per day. ("The reality is your dog isn't doing much when you're not around," Eidelman says, crushing my belief that Lulu is running a secret dog Fight Club league while her caretakers are at work.) After nearly a week, my brother, Lulu's owner, concluded that Whistle was nothing more than a "glorified stopwatch—literally all it does is record time. I thought it would record distances or at least footsteps taken."
It's an issue that many quantified-self companies face: how to deliver serious, meaningful feedback over time while still retaining user engagement. Jawbone, for example, has opted for a more analytical approach to its Up device, delivering metrics such as the number of calories burned, average pace, and workout intensity rating. Nike, on the other hand, has taken a more lighthearted approach, measuring user "Fuel points," an arbitrary but fun metric designed to introduce a level of cross-sport competition among friends on the platform.
For Whistle, it feels as if the company lost out on an opportunity to introduce a level of fun into its service, if not cuteness, especially since dog data is apparently so limited and uneventful. The graphs displaying Lulu's activity data, for instance, basically stayed unchanged, day in and day out—a few short blips around lunchtime, a spike from a longer walk at night. But there are no "paw points" or other whimsical features, though arguably for good reason. "Unsurprisingly, we've had [requests for] paw sensors and wagging tails and everything else," says Jacobs. "But I've tried the FuelBands and Fitbits, and I've cycled through many of them because I see this data—with whatever gamification layer they have—and ... three weeks after buying it, you get sick of it."
"This isn't about giving you as many cool graphs and charts and data as possible," adds Eidelman. "This is less about how many steps your dog took today, and more about whether your dog is getting a healthy amount of activity every day. We wanted to give people a metric that actually impacts health."
Striking that balance between providing serious and fun data will likely determine whether users keep with Whistle, like they would Nike's FuelBand or Parrot's Flower Power, after weeks and months of use. There are some very promising features that might help entice users to stick around regardless. First, Whistle's app is able to create progress reports for veterinarians, which Whistle's cofounders say is helpful for tracking their health. (Some universities are even starting to use Whistle's data for research.) Additionally, Whistle is convenient for keeping up to date with your dog while you're away, whether at work or on vacation. Because Whistle syncs via Wi-Fi, you don't need to be nearby to track your dog's movements. Whistle provides a certain peace of mind when overprotective parents are out of town, so they can be sure that dog-sitter from Craigslist is actually taking their pup out for a good walk. (Users can also keep track of their pets via embedded comments and uploaded images in the app.)
Whistle says more features are coming to the service, too, such as location check-ins and the ability to get better insight into graph data. But right now, Whistle, like some similar devices in this "quantified-other" space, feels too much like work, when it should be designed to ease user headaches. With Whistle, you have to check up on the app often to keep track of your dog's exercise. You have to charge the battery every week or so, which can be a pain. (Our device actually died a few days in, but the cofounders said this was likely due to outdated firmware from using an early device.) And after that, you basically only learn one simple message from Whistle: that you should walk your dog a few minutes more (or maybe even a few minutes less) to meet his or her daily goal. There's nothing else to it, really. The likelihood is that if a pet owner cares enough about his or her dog to buy a device like Whistle, then that dog is probably already getting enough love and attention without it. "This app is more about checking in on the dog owners than it is about checking in on the dog," my brother messaged me after seeing that his wife had barely logged a 10-minute walk with Lulu one afternoon, leaving him to take their dog out for much longer at night. (In her defense, it was freezing out at the time.)
Jacobs and Eidelman promise the service will get easier to use over time. They could soon offer rewards for improving activity patterns, such as a $10 discount at, say, PetSmart for achieving a certain goal. And they also say they're going to implement a smarter way to track who is taking care of the dog by monitoring via Bluetooth which owner's phone is close to the Whistle device during a walk.
But longer term, for this device to succeed, the company will need to provide more compelling and meaningful feedback, with more passive and seamless delivery. Imagine, for example, if Whistle could use Foursquare data from your iPhone to know that you're at Central Park; then use its weather data to understand that it's 90-plus degrees outside; and then combine that with Whistle's activity data to learn that your dog has been running around for more than an hour in the summer heat. Perhaps that could trigger an automated message to your iPhone suggesting that your dog ought to take a nap and drink more water, lest he or she gets dehydrated.
But that's an extreme example and a pretty rare use case. And, again, it's also pretty obvious information—a dog's panting is probably a more telling sign that a dog is tired than a collar sensor synced to your phone.
So until Whistle can introduce better features—a little novelty actually couldn't hurt here—average pet owners who love their dogs and consistently take them out are probably all set with a leash, a nearby park, and a few dog treats.