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25 Apr 2013

OU reveals dog-tech research to improve owners' lives

Canine-friendly technologies which enable dogs to support their owners around the home will be developed by the Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) team at The Open University (OU).

The team, part of The Centre for Research in Computing, is collaborating with Dogs for the Disabled to develop the technology. Currently, the charity trains dogs to assist their disabled owners with a wide range of tasks, from operating light switches and door handles to loading and unloading washing machines.

However, the dogs can face difficulty interfacing with household technologies as these are designed for humans rather than animals.

Research Fellow Dr Clara Mancini, head of the ACI team, said:

"These technologies will be designed for and with the active participation of the dogs. And the idea is that they will work in a variety of environments where the dogs are required to operate. When the dogs move from the training facility to their new home, instead of being faced with a different set of devices which they have to learn from scratch, they would bring their own 'toolkit' of plug-on appliances with them."

The research began two years ago, when a team in the Computing Department of The Open University launched the first systematic research programme in ACI to create technology designed for and by animals.

The principle behind ACI is to involve the animals as active participants and contributors to the design process, which is being applied to other areas of research.

"We are collaborating with the charity Medical Detection Dogs, who train dogs to detect traces of cancer cells by sniffing biological samples," explained Dr Mancini. "We aim to develop interactive devices which the dogs could use to help humans better interpret the dog's findings; and dog-friendly alert systems that the dogs could use to summon help for their assisted humans."

The team is also preparing to start a project aiming to develop interactive games for humans and wild animals, for example allowing resident elephants and human visitors to play together in wildlife parks. They believe ACI has potential in areas ranging from feeding pets to improving the life of farm animals.

Dr Mancini added: "The challenge is developing user-centred methodologies for someone who doesn't speak the same language or think the same way we do. In the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) toolbox are several methods which are not based on self-report, for example naturalistic observation, user-testing in the lab, bio sensing or the use of ergonomic principles. We can begin by adapting these to try and understand how animals see the world and invite them to re-design the future with us to build a more sustainable society for everyone."

A video presenting the approach is available at: http://youtu.be/w2-sVBYLbkY

Dr Mancini will present a paper on the significance of the ACI approach for addressing global issues such as sustainability at ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the leading international conference on HCI, in Paris on 1 May 2013.

A copy of Dr Mancini's conference paper, Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): Changing Perspective on HCI, Participation and Sustainability is available here: http://bit.ly/15Pd8fR

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