Interview with CleverPet: Interactive Home Dog Device

With the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) and Animal Computing, it is no surprise that at this year’s CES Conference CleverPet stole some of the limelight as a new gaming product for dogs. CleverPet is a light-up dog interactive dish that aims to engage a dog through the incentive of food.

The toy has three buttons which when pressed provide the dog with some food. This action is then gamified into three different games, catch the squirrel, pattern play and word learn. Catch the squirrel is where the dog has to hit the buttons to ‘catch’. Pattern play is where the dog has to repeat the increasing complex light patterns presented to him for the treat. Finally word learn is where the owner can program there voice into the device and train the dog to hit the correct button (left, centre and right).

All of this information is then passed into a mobile app so that the owner can monitor the progress and food intake through updates and turn the device on and off. This also enabled the owner to monitor their dogs’ progress on the games and see if and when the dog is using the device. All yours for $269.

With the rise of in home technology for dogs myself and Patricia Pons spoke with Leo Trottier the founder and CEO of CleverPet to find out more about this device.

Ilyena: Morning Leo, How are you doing? Hope all is well on your end, just trying to crack on with a paper at the moment about how to design with dogs.

Leo: Awesome! Would love to see it once it’s publicly available!

Ilyena: Thank-you I will have to pass it over your way. I must admit when I first saw your device I was very impressed and would just like to thank-you for taking time to answer a few questions about your device. Myself and Patricia are both part of the PlayfulACI (Playful Animal Computer Interaction) group and so are involved in Animal technology through that. It is always lovely to hear from someone in industry. Anyway, I just thought I would ask a few questions about your device. The toy, from what I can understand, works on a light and sound based system (similar to bop it for humans).

Leo: I’d never heard of Bop It — cool!

Ilyena: It must be an English thing! It is similar to your device in the promotional video. In this video it states that there are various games the dog can play from click the button when it lights up (pattern play), catch the squirrel along with learning words. How does this get more complex over time as you state it adapts? Do you think this toy could create disembodiment from the owner recorded voice with the dog may think that the owner is there?

Leo: While I believe dogs are capable of fairly sophisticated concepts, I don’t believe that disembodiment is likely to be a persistent problem. “Disembodiment” is a human concept that to me carries “creepy” (perhaps supernatural?) connotations.

If, operationally, you mean “disembodiment” to refer to some kind of stressful confusion caused by believing their owner is nearby while the owner isn’t, then even in this case I don’t believe it to be a problem. Dogs are quite adaptive. Perhaps some dogs may at first find it curious that a sound that vaguely resembles the sound of their owner is nearby, but I believe that over time this will dissipate, and will end up being little different than you or I seeing a picture of a loved one. Do you know of any research on this?

Ilyena: Annika Geurtsens paper , among my own work in the ACI field believe that by using the owners voice this could create confusion but there has yet to be solid research into the welfare effect of animal computer games and the effect of the owners voice. Maybe this is something that should be done!

Talking about Annika Geurtsen, last year she and her fellow researchers came up with a similar style button like game and used cortisol levels to measure the dogs stress as a measurement of emotions. How did you when testing your system measure the dog’s’ enjoyment of the game?

Leo: We received a few very strong hints that this was powerful early on. We noticed that dogs preferred food presented via the Hub over the same food presented via their food bowl. We also noticed that dogs will take to the “game” right away. They’re not forced to play — as I believe is the case with most entities with nervous systems, I believe dogs enjoy having agency over their world.

Ilyena: Very interesting! I have heard of dogs having preference towards the type of presentation via inanimate objects but I had no idea they preferred devices over there food bowls. I agree with you on the freedom to play (or not!) with the game and I think this is something pointed out in Patricia’s work on playful interfaces

Patricia: Yes, in my PhD work we emphasize on allowing the animal to decide when he wants to play. In this way, devices like CleverPet could allow the dog to enjoy for a while and relax when they become very bored. However, we are also very concerned on ensuring that the games we develop do not over-stress the animal. For example, if the dog is alone at home and no one controls it, perhaps the dog gets overexcited if the game is not stopped or if he does not get what he wants from it. How do you check that the use of the device does not introduce more anxiety on the dog because of the need of playing or getting treats all the time?

Leo: There are two checks that we have: the owner can observe the dog’s behavior, and we can observe the dog’s behavior. The first check is that if the owner detects that the dog is exhibiting symptoms of additional anxiety, they can intervene as appropriate (note that most dogs experience profound anxiety in the default case, because they’ve evolved to be social but are left alone all day). The second check can be done by us, using software. We can check for behaviors that correlate with anxiety (we’ve not found any yet). If we find these, we can either adjust the software, or inform the pet parent, or both.

Ilyena: Getting the owner involved of course is very important as they know there dogs the best and can add another layer of knowledge. I know that Annika in her system designed her technology to have a 20 min break between interactions to give the dog a break when using the device, does your system have any breaks or timer options?

Leo: We designed our system to be flexible. This is the kind of thing that we can introduce later on, via software updates, if we determine that it’s needed.

Ilyena: With the device connecting over Bluetooth this would easily be possible, I think this system will evolve as the usage grows. When designing the system did you involve the dogs within this process? If so how?

Leo: We started with a fair bit of dog interaction, but the design process quickly changed toward more prosaic (and less fun) concerns: how to handle any size or shape of dog kibble, how to produce a device that people find attractive, etc.

Ilyena: I suppose there is this balance with animal technology that although you need to make it for the pet the owner is the buyer. Referring back to the automated updates which interested me. Within your website it states that the game automatically changes to match the dog’s’ mood. How does it do this?

Leo: Two ways, firstly locally, on the device, we can increase the level of difficulty if the dog is more engaged. Secondly on our back-end, we can adjust the games the device is presenting, based both on observations of the dog’s behavior, and feedback from the person involved.

Ilyena: So the device will be adaptive. Maybe at some point, as the device is over blue tooth it would be nice to have another connecting device with further complex game as the users enjoyment levels out. What was your biggest challenge when designing the product?

Leo: The product design was the fun part. The hard part is building a business and starting a company.

Ilyena: I noticed that you started on Kickstarter in 2014 with an incredible 1,142 backer’s pledging over $180k meaning that there clearly is a need, at least from the owners, for this product. When building the product why did you decide to use the paw/nose as a basis of interaction?

Leo: It was the most affordable and reliable way to get started. Dogs are naturally inclined to sniff near food, and we wanted to take advantage of that.

Ilyena: I think the idea of using their nose to press things as a tactile device is clever, maybe in the future in a similar way to Charlotte Robinson designs her device , you could include the mouth.

Patricia: I know that you recently presented the product at CES. What was the feedback you got at CES 2016? Did you have the chance to speak directly with dog owners and gather their thoughts about the device? For example, which kind of info they would like to see in the app, if they would like to see their dog remotely via a camera on the device, etc?

Leo: Yes, we had plenty of opportunities in that regard. We learned that most people don’t have much in the way of pre-conceived notions about the kind of information they’d be interested in seeing in a mobile app. Most people who are interested in purchasing a CleverPet Hub will already be the kinds of early adopters who would have a camera at home. It’s likely that they purchased this camera in order to watch their dogs. The problem is that their dog has nothing to do, so the camera has nothing to look at. The Hub helps to address this.

Ilyena: Maybe this will change over the time as you collect more feedback iteratively from the users of the device. I do think a camera would be quite interesting just to see what and how the dog was playing the game. Also using cameras, I and Patricia have both made systems which can detect where animals are and looking. That might enable more complex game play. I look forward to seeing how this product changes, and maybe even trying it myself with my own dog.

Thank you Leo so much for taking the time to talk to us and keep us updated on CleverPet!

After Thoughts

Ilyena: I think as a research in ACI my biggest concern with this product is to ensure that owners know that this is not a replacement for dog-human interaction. This is not the technology developers issue though with the responsibility lying with the dog-owners. As devices like this become more prevalent their usage will also become more apparent. Until then as ACI researchers all we can do is to ensure correct animal welfare.

Patricia:  I strongly agree with Ilyena in that owners have to realize this kind of devices are not just replacements but complements. Nevertheless, after seeing the great acceptance of devices such as CleverPet, it is evident that there is a real need for providing pets with engaging and suitable entertainment in order to reduce boredom or separation anxiety. I believe that research within playful ACI could help to improve the experience of both owners and pets, always ensuring animal welfare.

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