So far, 2021 has been a banner year for nonsense words. The metaverse — more of a concept than an actual entity at this point — was embraced as the central initiative of Facebook Meta; NFTs, which are quite literally intangible assets, have taken on a life of their own, and now, DogPhone is here to be exactly what it sounds like: a phone for dogs.
Developed by Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, a researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and Zack, her 10-year-old labrador, the DogPhone itself is comprised a small ball equipped with a sensor and connected to a laptop. When a dog moves the ball, the “phone” initiates a video call to the dog’s owner (moving the ball also works to answer an incoming call, if the dog is so inclined).
While there are a ton of new smart home gadgets designed to give humans more control over their environments and insight into what’s going on with their pets while they’re home alone, far less attention gets paid to giving the actual animals themselves any agency in how they interact with technology. The DogPhone — which isn’t intended for commercial use or distribution — was invented as a way to study the way dogs experience technology and to innovate around their ease-of-use.
In prototyping the device, Hirskyj-Douglas says in a YouTube video that she sought to improve and study the user experience for dogs, particularly given how many of them were placed in new homes during the 2020 covid-19 lockdown that saw everyone and their mother getting a pet.
“I’ve been building devices for my dog and many other dogs for quite a while now,” Hirskyj-Douglas says in the video. “I think a lot of these devices are really important to give dogs choices or options to do things for enrichment reasons.”
While Hirskyj-Douglas says it was “very exciting” to receive video calls from Zack initially, eventually he burned her by not wanting to talk all the time — which inevitably led to her feeling anxious that something was wrong at home on the days when he wouldn’t call at a regularly scheduled time.
“It became a bit more anxious for me near the end because sometimes I wouldn’t get a video call or he wouldn’t ring me through the day, and I would be thinking, ‘Oh, he usually rings me at this time,’” she said.
Do dogs understand what they’re doing when they place a video call? Do they even experience a high-level desire to “check in” on their humans when they’re not around, or are they content enough to just hang out with us when we’re there in person? Do they prefer iOS or Android? For now, DogPhone asks a lot more questions than it answers.