This week, Slate is reviewing all the “smart” gizmos we can get our hands on. Read all the entries here.
For the past two weeks, I have had a smart dog. I don’t mean a brilliant one, although Ziggy is of course a genius, but a dog that is synced up with my smartphone. This weird-but-true arrangement—a furry elaboration on the Internet of Things—comes courtesy of Whistle, a startup that caters to tech-savvy (and/or obsessive) pet owners with its motion tracker and accompanying app.
The Whistle monitor (available for $99.95 here) is a stainless steel disc embedded with an accelerometer that fits onto your dog’s collar. It weighs about half an ounce. As your dog plays, walks, or sleeps, the device records his activity and sends it via your Wi-Fi connection to your phone. Using the free Whistle app, you can then watch your dog’s day unspool in a blue line that spikes when he moves around. You can even upload comments and photos, visible to as many as four other people who’ve downloaded the app. If you’re feeling competitive, pressing a button on your screen produces a rainbow of charts that compare your dog’s activity and rest levels to those of similarly sized dogs in Whistle’s database. The sensor itself needs charging every five days or so. For an extra $20, you may have it engraved.
My task was to test out Whistle on a dog, any dog, and I was lucky to have one on call. Ziggy lives with my parents, not too far from me. I registered my mom and me as Ziggy’s owners and downloaded the app to both of our phones. (My dad, who accompanies Ziggy on his evening constitutionals, declined to participate. “I’m under enough pressure,” he said.) We also registered Jake, the dog walker, who thankfully felt intrigued rather than spied on.
I was delighted by how quickly the accelerometer charged and how simple it was to affix it to the rest of Ziggy’s neck jewelry. The data from the device syncs with your phone every hour—the product would be even neater if it worked in real time—and once the squiggly lines start appearing, they are like an IV drip of mesmerizing, mostly useless knowledge. (I mean, if you’ve just walked the dog for 45 minutes, do you really need an app to tell you you just walked the dog for 45 minutes?)
Of course, some of the info is valuable. Whistle does an excellent job of letting you keep tabs on your dog remotely, and may help uncover general trends in his behavior. The founder, Ben Jacobs, hopes pet owners will use the app to track micro-signals, or early warning signs: Less activity, for instance, could indicate joint pain, while interrupted sleep might mean diabetes.
In fact, Whistle bills itself as a kind of canine exercise mate, à la FitBit or Fuelband: When registering your dog with Whistle, you are invited to set a daily activity goal. Thereafter, a cheerful pop-up on your phone notifies you whenever that goal is met. (Sometimes, a separate congratulatory note appears when you meet the goal two or three days in a row. Whistle is very encouraging.) The daily activity goal is represented as a gray bagel that gradually fills with blue the closer you and your dog come to realizing it; it turns a gratifying shade of green when the goal is achieved. Not greenifying the bagel is very frustrating. Therefore, Whistle could conceivably motivate some users to give their dogs more exercise. (On the other hand, when Ziggy consistently failed to meet his initial benchmark of 120 minutes per day, we just scaled the goal back to 90 minutes. Good boy!)
But the most surprising perk of Whistle is social: It is a great way to connect. People have long bonded over their dogs, yet Whistle may be the first to successfully indulge this impulse online. With Whistle, I communicated far more with my parents than I normally do via email or text. We traded photos and comments about Ziggy, and the updates my mom posted from home became not only a charming diary of the dog’s day, but a catalog of her own moods. (Of course, there were times when checking the dogometer was akin to opening Pandora’s box: “Ziggy says he misses Katy.” “Ziggy wants to know if Katy can come over for dinner.” “Ziggy would appreciate a reply.”) Jacobs told Gigaom’s Kevin Fitchard that the company seeks to expand Whistle’s social networking capabilities, allowing users to post to each other’s data feeds or even export doggy updates to Facebook.
I’m not sure about that last venture: A stream of precious pet images and anxious/proud FYIs may be the last thing Facebook needs, and Whistle already does a wonderful job engaging the people who care that Buddy was active for nine minutes around mid-morning. As is, for dog-owning families, Whistle provides a lovely, low-stress, half-earnest and half-ironic way to check in.
I felt connected to Ziggy, too. At work, I could pull out my phone and watch his blue line move up and down. Whistle is probably ideal for users like me, who live apart from the dogs they grew up with but still want to keep an eye on them.
But what about your typical dog owner? I’d bet the types of people who buy Whistle already spend enough time around their dogs to have a general sense of their activity levels. For them, the app’s appeal must be less practical—does my dog get enough exercise?—than abstract, fueled by a general thirst for data. Exactly how much exercise does my dog get? (And also, because data is meant to be shared: Look how much exercise my dog gets!) In that sense, Whistle may just be the latest technology to feed a need we never knew we had.
Which is not to downplay the strength of that need. I can personally attest to the app’s addictiveness. Almost immediately, it became a part of the near-unconscious ritual of checking that begins every time I unlock my smartphone. Email, Twitter, a few news websites, sometimes Instagram, and now Whistle. Does this mean anything to Ziggy? No. His walking schedule hasn’t changed at all since we began the grand dogometer experiment. But let’s be honest: The point of Whistle is not to improve your dog’s life. It is to keep you in touch with your family. It is to scratch that strange quantification itch. It is to remind you, as you go about your connected existence, that you have a dog, somewhere, and that he’s alive, and that you love him.