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Smart Toys Now Include Audio and Video Calls Between Species

What would happen if a horse had a phone?

Key points

  • A prototype of the DogPhone was presented in November 2021. The device detects movement and triggers an internet video call to the pet's owner.
  • Initial testing of the DogPhone resulted in some calls that seemed unintentionally made, while others seemed more intentional.
  • While they don't yet exist, horse phones could answer many important questions about equine cognition, perception, recognition, and interaction.

Smart toys for animals that work by way of artificial intelligence are becoming all the rage, with predictions that they’ll form a $20 billion industry by the year 2025. These toys include fitness robots that play with your pet for specific periods of time, cameras that record your pet’s activity when it begins, and programmable treat dispensers that offer goodies when pets make the right moves. With these devices, you can exercise your dog, encourage her to rest, reward her for getting off the couch, and record her disputes with the cat—all while you are many miles away.

The DogPhone

The latest smart toy turns artificial animal intelligence on its head. Instead of requiring human programming, the DogPhone is controlled by the pet. A prototype was presented in November 2021 by animal-computer interaction specialist Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas of the University of Glasgow. She was motivated to develop it for pandemic pets who might become anxious when home alone.

The DogPhone looks like a plain old dog ball, but tucked inside is a device that detects movement and triggers an internet video call to the pet’s owner. In other words, the dog moves the ball, and the ball then calls you at work. When the call is picked up, the dog and owner can see and hear each other on laptop computer screens set up in their respective locations.

Hirskyj-Douglas tested the prototype on her labrador retriever, Zack. (Lucky test dog!) Once familiar with the device, he called her about five times a day. Some of the calls were caused by accidental movement, like when Zack rolled onto the ball while sleeping. But others seemed intentional, with Zack staring at the screen and wagging his tail as his owner answered the call. Occasionally, he attempted to interact with her, bringing his favorite toys to the computer screen and inviting her to play. She used the connection to show Zack her office and other distant locations, which he observed intently on the screen.

Imagine... a phone for horses

What would happen if a horse had a phone? One obvious concern struck me immediately: A horse could destroy a ball by accidentally biting, kicking, or stepping on it. Then again, I’ve had several dogs who could obliterate a toy in 30 seconds by tearing it apart with their teeth. Mounting a flat device high on a wall within reach of the horse’s mouth might work. Horses have very nimble lips that could wiggle or move the Horse Phone to trigger a call.

Janet Jones/Allison Ragsdale Photography
The author and her horse, considering the laptop.
Source: Janet Jones/Allison Ragsdale Photography

Our most anthropomorphic tendencies come into play when imagining a Horse Phone. Would a horse be frightened by his human’s face and voice on a screen? Would he come to understand that the human was not physically there? If your horse called you, what would he want? “Hay, Mom. More hay.” Could a horse learn to call for help? “I don’t feel good,” or heaven forbid, “There’s smoke in the barn.” Maybe he would call but offer no communication at all. This is perhaps a good spot to point out that Zack the dog sometimes calls his owner and then walks away from the computer screen, clearly ignoring her.

Seems like it's all fun and games, but it's not just for play. There is so much more we need to know about horses—and about animals of all kinds. A Horse Phone could teach us all sorts of things about equine cognition, sensory discrimination, group dynamics among horses, facial recognition, and equine communication. It could become a welcome tool in every equine scientist’s toolbox. And think of the veterinary implications.

We laugh now. But someday, maybe even someday soon, a DogPhone could be created for horses, and we would make all sorts of new discoveries about their brains, their activities, their lives.

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