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GPS and Beyond: Fido Is on the Internet


GPS and Beyond: Fido Is on the Internet

Photograph by Hans Surfer

Two years ago my wife and got a big scare while visiting our in-laws with our dog Lola. While my wife and I were out on a morning run, Lola escaped from the house and disappeared into the neighborhood. Luckily we recovered her—thanks to some local good Samaritans and the folks at animal control—but our poor dog had suffered a horrible 18-hour ordeal, having been hit by a car and cornered by neighborhood dogs.

I’m happy to say Lola mended and remains a happy member of our family, but the fright of that day led us to investigate GPS tracking collars. Ultimately we decided against it. The collars are bulky and expensive, and they required regular charging, but mainly we were turned off by the cost of the service. They use cellular connectivity to transmit their coordinates, and the cost of such connectivity isn’t cheap: usually about a $100 annual subscription. We felt that was a steep price to connect an object that performed a single function that we would access rarely, if ever.
I’ve always been fascinated, however, by the idea of somehow connecting our dog to the network. After all, I can connect my thermostat, my refrigerator, and my car to the Internet. I like all those appliances, but none are more important to me than my pups. And I’ve discovered that today that I have a lot more options for making Lola part of the Internet of things.

Near-field communications (NFC) technology is one way that’s getting some attention lately. PetHub just released an NFC pet tag that allows you to scan a lost pet’s collar with an NFC-enabled smartphone. That may seem a bit gimmicky since most tags have emergency contact numbers etched in, but as PetHub points out, a lot of can be crammed into a 1-inch tag: vaccination records, veterinary contacts, insurance details, and info about allergies and medial condition. PetHub tags also have QR codes so they can be accessed by phones without NFC.

But NFC gets really interesting when it’s used to communicate more than just passive information. Fujitsu (6702:JP) recently launched what is essentially a FitBit for dogs in Japan. Called Wandant, the collar attachment uses a three-axis accelerometer to count a dog’s steps. It can also detect whether a dog is shivering and what its body temperature is. The data are transferred to an Android smartphone via NFC and then transferred to a cloud-based health monitoring service, which will advise you on exercise and diet for your pup.

We’ve also started seeing NFC’s cousin’s RFID (radio frequency identification) used in interesting ways for several years. Pets have long been “chipped” with embedded RFID tags accessibly by vets and animal control officers. But the technology can also be used for ad-hoc geofencing—monitoring pets’ movements the same way FedEx (FDX) tracks parcels in its long, complex delivery chain.

Pet day care and boarding facilities have experimented with RFID tags to manage the activities of their furry clients—say, when a dog enters or leaves a play area—track time spent in the facility, and even automatically bill their owners. Daily RFID has developed a radio dog tag that will automatically unlock the gate of a dog park whenever an authorized dog approaches.

For those who are serious about quantifying their pets’ actions (as well as those of their owners), GreenGoose has been tinkering with a connected pet kit that uses multiple wireless sensors that communicate with a hub attached to your home network. You attach those sensors to your pet’s collar and leash, as well as its food scoop and treat bin. Whenever you perform an action, such as opening the treat bin or attaching the leash, the hub records it, creating a log of your pet’s daily activities accessible through its Petagonia iPhone app.

That might come in handy if you have dogs like ours that have fooled us into feeding them their dinner twice—it’s amazing what a forlorn look at a food bowl can do. GreenGoose seems to have taken the kit off the market, and according to ConnectedWorld’s review, it still had some bugs to work out. But the experiment definitely held promise. By correlating daily routine information with sensor data, such technology won’t just tell you what your pet has done, but what it needs to do—for instance, notifying if you if the dog hasn’t been walked in five hours or if your forgot to give it its medication.

While I definitely find all of these gadgets intriguing, ultimately I arrive back at the same problem I found with the GPS tracking collar. I may not be paying a monthly cellular connectivity bill, but I wind up buying a bunch of single-purpose devices that don’t really coordinate or communicate with one another. If I really wanted to connect my two pooches, I would find myself outfitting them each with a half-a-dozen collars or tags and then monitoring them from half-a-dozen apps or interfaces.

This is an emerging problem in the Internet of things. While it’s possible to connect many objects to the network, it quickly becomes either prohibitively expensive or unpractical to do so. Just as with any Internet-of-things segment—whether connected car, connected home, or quantified self—the connected pet needs a platform. This could take the shape of, say, an Android dog collar, or it could just require open application programming interfaces that allow a single app to manage and interpret all your pet data.

Let’s face it, we all wish our pets could talk. The Internet of things will eventually give them the equivalent of a limited voice—letting us know where they are, when they’re hungry, if they need to be exercised, and when they get sick. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my dog talk with a single voice rather than a dozen.

Also from GigaOM:
Podcast: Why the World Needs Wearable Computing (subscription required)

How Technology Is Slowly Developing Its Sense of Smell

The Fastest Way to Speedy Networks: Ignore Uncle Sam

Forget Data Transparency: Options Increase for Letting You Hide Your Data

Suppliers Say Microsoft Is Planning a Smartwatch: It’s Almost Past Time

Higginbotham is a writer for GigaOM.

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