A few weeks ago, I was bored. So I did what everyone does when they’re bored: I exhausted my Instagram feed, caught up on the news, and stalked my fair share of strangers on Facebook. Then I moved on to Petcube, an app that connects to small square cameras of the same name.
I swiftly scrolled through a feed of animal photos, passing by images of cats and small dogs with a deftness usually applied to Tinder. Finally, a particularly snuggly feline caught my eye; I tapped its photo. Within seconds, I was connected to a livestream of a modest living room in an undisclosed location, where the furry striped creature lay curled up on a couch. I ran my finger across the screen and a red laser dot followed it, skipping across the plush rug. The cat’s ears perked up and it pounced immediately. I directed it to jump over pillows and onto countertops with the zigzags of my hand. The entire 20-minute playdate felt oddly transactional, like I was sitting there with the pet version of a cam girl — as my own cat napped at the foot of my bed. Once I got my fix, we parted ways. I never saw the furry kitty again.
The ability for anyone with a smartphone to virtually play with a stranger’s pet, however bizarre, is just the latest signal of the pet tech industry’s unstoppable sprawl into strange new territory. When the first “Fitbits for dogs” hit the market almost four years ago, some interpreted their frivolity as a warning that the tech industry’s bubble was ready to burst — at least enough for TechCrunch to suggest the idea “a perfect example of Silicon Valley going too far.” Today, it’s clear those gadgets were only the beginning of what is an incredibly promising, wide-ranging market. The “ridiculous” subject of that TechCrunch post — a smart-collar startup called Whistle — was acquired by Mars Petcare for about $117 million in April. The American Pet Products Association estimates that we spent somewhere near $62.75 billion on our pets in 2016 — a number that has nearly doubled from $38.5 billion in the past 10 years. And while a good portion of that sum will go to high-end food and veterinary care, Grand View Research expects Americans will spend about $2.36 billion by 2022 on pet wearables alone.
I saw the proof: The cornucopia of carefully designed (and yes, rose gold) tags, collars, smart feeding systems, and cameras on display at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show clearly demonstrate that humans are relishing their newfound ability to set up their very own pet panopticons.
To surround beings that willingly eat their own feces with hundreds of dollars worth of sensors may seem ridiculous. But behind all of this surveillance — whether it be physiological, nutritional, or social — is the fact that people in developed countries are growing more and more obsessed with their pets. “The money flowing out is just absolutely enormous,” says Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist who recently retired from Tufts University, and the author of The Well Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend. “People love their pets like children, and they want to do the best for them.” While early iterations of pet tech sought to address baseline needs for owners, like physical health, products are now expanding to serve the desires of owners to socialize with their pets on a deeper level. In some cases, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are even seizing on the uncertainty of an animal’s behavior to make a case that their product will bridge that gap.
“There is that definite desire, just like in the movie, Up, where dogs talk,” Lisa Tamayo, the cofounder of the pet tracking company Scollar, said, referring to a fictional device from the Pixar film that automatically translates an animal’s thoughts to English. “Like: ‘Hi, I just met you and I love you.’”
When I arrived at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Whistle CEO Ben Jacobs and his dachshund mix, Duke, were there to meet me in a black SUV. Despite the uptick in pet-related startups over the years, only service animals are allowed in the cavernous convention space where tech companies show off their latest wares. Duke would be sitting the actual event out, but managed to make a lasting impression in an Elvis outfit, complete with a cape, pompadour wig, and golden “doggles.”
He was also wearing the Whistle 3, the company’s latest rectangular plastic tracker that clips onto leashes and harnesses. The $79.95 gadget offers location alerts on a companion app, activity and rest monitoring, and a nationwide GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular tracking feature that runs on a $7- to $10-dollar-a month subscription plan. (Jacobs summarizes the monthly fee as “the price of a latte.”) Though Whistle’s earlier products aimed to be the “Fitbit for dogs,” the company’s goals have since boiled down to a utilitarian focus on accurate and immediate GPS tracking. The scramble for others to catch up to a growing industry has left him somewhat skeptical of products promising magical animal communication.
“You’ll see folks just trying to put tech there for tech’s sake,” he told me, adding: “The vet is your most important partner and advocate for the care of your animal. Anyone who’s trying to sell you devices that want to turn it into a replacement for a vet is taking it in the wrong direction.”
Though Jacobs was polite enough to leave company names out of our discussion, it took just a quick stroll around the convention floor to understand that pet entrepreneurs were in a battle to one-up each other with extra — and sometimes dubious — features. There was Tractive, a GPS tracker nearly identical to Whistle, that also collects information about the ambient temperature around your pet. RoamingTails embeds medical information into a thin, Bluetooth-enabled dog tag. The American Kennel Club’s LINK AKC collar is made of leather and comes with a remote-controlled light to help you find your animal in the dark. Scollar features an actual touch screen in a pet’s collar, so family members can keep track of meals and medicine. The French company Equisense introduced a plastic activity tracker that equestrians can attach to their horses’ saddles.
But closest to the Up holy grail was Kyon, a battery-powered collar that translates information from sensors within the device into messages on an LED screen like “I AM HOT” or “MOODY.” “What if you could know exactly what your little one is thinking about?” the Greece-based company asks on its website. “KYON Sense makes this possible today with unique algorithms that can interpret your pets needs.” According to cofounder Leon Yohai, these mood messages are triggered when the collar’s apparatus — which includes a 9-axis accelerometer and heat and water sensors — deliver information that aligns with certain precoded symptoms. Those symptoms, he says, are based “on common sense” and “studies from a few universities.”
“It’s a combination of patterns,” he told me beneath a bright, white canopy at his minimalist company booth. “Let’s say it’s 40 degrees, and he’s not moving — then he doesn’t feel well. He’s playing all day, he’s moving — he must be happy. He’s not moving at all, just a little bit — he’s sleepy.” At best, it seemed like an oversimplification of whatever a dog might be experiencing at a given moment — exactly the kind of technology that Jacobs had warned me about in the SUV. But then I thought: How fun would it be to put one on my dog?
At the peak of the human wearable craze, there were tales of the patient who’d dump a trove of data at his doctor’s desk, and ask what it all meant. Few physicians reportedly found the information helpful. But, when it comes to pets, the opposite can be true. Pets can’t communicate their symptoms, and sometimes when abnormalities in activity or sleep appear in tracking apps, Dodman says they can tip vets off to investigate otherwise unexplored health issues. Nearly every company I spoke with gushed about how a device had saved an animal from a close call, whether it belonged to a user or an employee. When Kim Tran, a marketing director at a pet tracker company called Poof, first got her Boston terrier, she noticed on the device’s companion app that he wasn’t sleeping well. She took him to the vet, and learned the dog had hay fever. In another anecdote, Jacobs heard from a Whistle user who noticed that her dog, Ripley, was moving around less while she was at work, brought him to the vet early, and discovered a serious kidney condition.
“In addition to sitting down for five minutes with a pen and saying: ‘How is your dog? Does he cough?’ You now have a whole stream of data that will tell you,” says Dodman. “You could glance at it, it could be in an app, it could be visualized, it could be curved, it could be flagged and tell you: ‘This is gone outside the normal parameters for this dog, or dogs in general.’”
That follow-up with a vet is a crucial step in the new Wild West of pet wearables. But it’s not necessarily clear whether that part of the equation is as thrilling for the pet owners. In 2014, a computerized collar called Voyce launched that allowed vets to communicate directly with their patients. It transmitted a dog’s resting heart and respiratory rates, activity levels, rest patterns, and calories burned. It was also bulky and ugly. After two years of scant sales, the company behind Voyce was forced to shut it down. In its place stands, PetPace — a little-known collar that tracks a dog’s vital signs and gives vets full access to its patients’ data — has emerged.
Whether the mass adoption of these trackers influences the practice of veterinary medicine remains to be seen. In the meantime, more and more technology companies are focusing their efforts on products that offer immediate satisfaction: the ability to see and interact with pets throughout the workday, much like Angela from The Office did. (Although she couldn’t interact with them.) According to Petcube cofounder Yaroslav Azhnyuk, the company’s users call their pets an average of eight times in a week, racking up a little less than an hour of talk and play. The app comes with an automatic screen-capture feature, and encourages users to share photos of their pets on their Facebook Timelines, just like parents do with their children. And, for the petless and voyeuristic, there are public feeds that allow anyone to play with bored animals in random homes or shelters. Azhnyuk sees all of this as a sign that, as we become hyper-connected to the people and pets in our lives, our real and digital lives around them are merging.
“You have an app to call a taxi, you have an app to book an apartment,” Azhnyuk said. “Why don’t you have an app to play with your dog or to see how he’s doing?”
Still, pets don’t respond to this technology the same way humans do. Dodman says that while some dogs can recognize their owner’s face when it’s beamed into the living room on a TV or tablet screen, the experience is still confusing. Smaller screens are even more difficult for dogs to comprehend, because they aren’t able to as effectively recreate the world around them.
Introducing screens, sensors, and remote controls into our pets’ world is now driving animal behaviorists like Dodman to better understand how we can use digital tools to look after and entertain animals. He says that, for the most part, there’s no harm in remotely distracting animals with a laser pointer. (Unless that animal is a puppy. Puppies can develop “a light chasing compulsion” that causes them to search for a light all their lives.) In some cases, these devices can even help an otherwise listless animal remain active while its owner is away at work.
“We all think it’s normal for cats, but sleeping 20 hours a day could be a sign of depression,” Dodman said. “If you’re in a house that’s not designed to be cat friendly, it seems to be better than the alternative, which is just a big void.”
Dodman is currently advising two companies that aim to help pets be less bored at home. The first, DOGTV, is a digital TV channel that airs content that caters specifically to the visual sensibilities of canines. Content is split into areas of entertainment, education, and relaxation, and includes video of dogs interacting with their owners, chasing balls, swimming, “beach stuff,” running through cornfields, and GoPro-esque footage held at pooch eye level. Though dogs that are more scent-driven tend not to respond as intensely to this programming, on average, they watch the channel for about one hour over the course of a day. And if a dog has something to do all day, he says, it’s less likely to develop stress or separation anxiety.
“It certainly beats the sound of silence for a dog who is left alone,” says Dodman.
The second company, PetChatz, sells a device that Dodman describes as “FaceTime for pets.” Owners are meant to mount the screen on the wall at the eye level of a pet, and then check in with them throughout the day. The dog can see you and you can see the dog — in addition to delivering treats and releasing calming scents. Dodman is currently working with the Center for Canine Behavior Studies to evaluate the use of the gadget in shelters. After the animals are introduced to the monitors, researchers will collect saliva samples and evaluate their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. They will also make observational notes, based on a system developed by the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, which evaluates various qualities of a dog’s disposition, like a tucked tail, erect posture, or fluttering eyelids.
“It’s being able to move toward being able to communicate with your dog,” Dodman said. “Most people are pretty ignorant about dog signs, they don’t understand what it means when a dog lifts its paw off the ground. What’s the context? With computers behind us, we can do a lot more than just sort of look at things and pass opinions. We can average things and the machine can learn, so it gets smarter and smarter with more and more input. Just like a robot.”
Dodman’s words stuck with me the next time I fired up my Petcube app, this time to check in on my cat, Chloe, from the Las Vegas airport. She was sitting on the couch when the laser caught her eye. Her eyes widened, she lifted a single paw, and within seconds, her nose was smooshed up against the camera. Soon, my view was completely blocked by a furry mass. She did not want to play with the $149 device as its creators had intended, she wanted to sit on it and absorb its heat. In her eyes, it was no different from my router.