We live in a society where computing technology has become ubiquitous and interacting with computers no longer means using keyboard and mouse. Embedded in the fabric of our cities, workplaces, homes, vehicles, clothes and even bodies, ‘smart’ systems now allow us to relate to the world around us, one another and even ourselves in unprecedented ways.
Being directly or indirectly involved in every aspect of human life, animals too interact with computing technology and, in fact, have done so for a long time. For example, within conservation research, animals have been wearing all kinds of tracking devices since the 1960s. More or less in the same period, psychologists began to run behavioural experiments requiring animals to interact with the rudimentary interfaces of operant chambers, now evolved into sophisticated electronic devices. In the 1980s, Apple designed Koko’s Mac II, a touch-screen computer that allowed the famous resident of The Gorilla Foundation to learn language and communicate with human researchers using symbolic icons called lexigrams; nowadays, the residents of the Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary use a modern version of the same technology available to them on portable and wall-mounted computers. Similarly, the underwater keyboards used by dolphins at Washington’s National Aquarium in comparative cognition research, were initially prototyped in the 1980s. Roughly a decade later, companies such as Lely and Fullwood pioneered the development of automatic robotic milking systems, which allowed dairy cows to voluntarily milk themselves and which have since evolved in both precision and sophistication.
In spite of this history, so far the discipline of Interaction Design (ID) has only concerned itself with designing interactive systems for humans and animal technology has seldom taken the user-centred approach developed by the discipline of ID. However, this is now changing, as the emerging discipline of Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) is expanding the design of interactive systems beyond the human species, by investigating the interaction between animals and technology, by developing technology that can support animals in different ways, and by informing a user‐centred approach to the design of technology for animals (visit the Centre for Research in Computing website).
As dogs have co-evolved with humans for thousands of years and share a very special relationship with us, not only as companions but also as working partners, much ACI research and design has naturally been focussing on them. For example, researchers have studied the effects that the use of GPS tracking devices with pet dogs have on them and found how the technology changes their behaviour (e.g. they come back to their owners more frequently and seem especially happy to wear the tracking collar, associated with longer walks off leash). Researchers have also designed canine-centred interfaces allowing dog owners to train and entertain their dogs over the internet (e.g. Rover@Home), or computing-enabled games that dogs and owners can play together in the same room (e.g. CAT). Working dogs too are starting to have their own canine-centred technology, as researchers develop biosensing wearables to monitor the vital signs of search&rescue dogs (e.g. Retrieva) and allow them to remotely communicate back to their handlers what they find (e.g. FIDO). Additionally, assistance dogs who, so far, have had to learn how to operate domestic appliances designed for humans will soon have canine-friendly computing interfaces for things like light switches, washing machines, elevators, or door handles. Consistent with the user-centred approach of both ID and ACI, not only is this technology being developed to account for the physiology and psychology of its canine users, these users directly participate in the development process.
In the following video, Dr Clara Mancini talks about the Animal-Computer Interaction team and their collaboration with the charity Dogs for the Disabled to design dog-friendly technologies which will make it easier for dogs to assist their humans in the home. Assistance dogs perform a range of daily tasks, such as operating light switches and door handles, but domestic technology is designed for humans rather than animals, making life harder for the dogs and their owners. So, a new animal-centered design perspective is needed.