NCSU harness enhances dog-human communication
Posted November 11, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Researchers at North Carolina State University are working on a device to improve communication between humans and their furry friends.
It is a bond already being leveraged by Sean Mealin and his service dog, Simba. They have worked together for about a year and a half. Simba sees what Scott cannot.
"You kind of develop that human/canine bond that many people develop with their pets but to a very significant level," Mealin said.
To take that bond and communication to a new level, they are part of the group testing a computer-assisted harness that translates Simba's posture and vital signs into insight on whether the dog is excited or distressed.
David Roberts, assistant professor of computer science, said the harness relays real-time data to human handlers.
"They can understand what their dog is doing or experiencing in the world around them and try to increase their awareness of what their dog is experiencing and doing," he explained.
As a seeing-eye dog, Simba is trained to communicate obstacles directly in Sean's path. But if Simba wore the harness and saw something farther ahead, like a loose dog, Sean could pick up on that by monitoring Simba's biofeedback.
"I could see that he's getting stressed out about something up ahead, and so for his safety and for my safety and the stress of both of us, I can just reroute and find an alternate path," Mealin said.
The harness is being tested on working dogs even when they are not in contact with a human handler. Dogs who do search and rescue, for instance, can relay remotely when they find something.
Dr. Barbara Sherman, professor of veterinary behavior, said those dogs are trained to go into a down position when they locate their quarry.
"That is sensed by the sensors the dog is wearing on the vest. It feeds back that the dog has found something, and then we know to go and take a look at that," she said.
The applications for working dogs are endless, but it's not all work and no play.
Roberts is also working on interactive games for dogs and humans to play together.
"They aren't going to look like 'World of Warcraft' or 'Second Life' or 'Call of Duty,' but there's going to be this computer-based interaction that's going to keep your dog entertained and enriched," he said.
The harness has eight vibration points on it that can be used to give the dog hundreds of commands remotely. It also has a speaker to play recorded cues that is capable of translating a text message to an audible command.
Roberts hopes to have a working prototype more widely available early in 2015.