Quantifying my dogs: Four weeks with Whistle’s canine activity tracker

Let me say first off that I’m one of those dog owners. My wife Carolyn and I dote on our two dogs, treating them like our children. So needless to say, if we were going get drawn into any technology involving the internet of things, it would be one involving our mutts. When Whistle Labs’ founders approached us about beta testing its new dog activity tracker, they found a receptive audience.

Lola and HippoFor more than four weeks, our dogs Hippo and Lola have been connected canines via Whistle’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, registering every minute of their activity on our iPhones through the device’s accompanying app. Over that period, my wife and I have not only found ourselves invested in the data Whistle provided, but we also discovered something much more surprising.

We weren’t just engaging with our dogs, we were engaging with one another using Whistle’s still-nascent social networking tools. Hippo and Lola are focal points in our lives so it became only natural for us to communicate with one another through the Whistle app, no matter how odd that seems.

Right now Whistle does only a few things — it records their walks, playtime and general activity — but it does those few things very well. But what’s most intriguing about Whistle is it isn’t just a static service. It’s a data platform with the promise of becoming much more than the activity tracker it is today.

The device

Hippo with whistle

Whistle is simple yet artfully designed device about the size of two stacked poker chips. As you can see from the photo of Hippo above it’s not very obtrusive, but keep in mind Hippo is a 60-pound pit bull-boxer mix with an enormous head (hence his name). So on a smaller dog Whistle would be much more prominent.

The device has a single button, which manually activates its radios, and a ring LED that lights up when it’s establishing a connection. Its primary sensor is a three-axis accelerometer, which records all of the dogs movements. It contains an internal battery that must be recharged every five days or so. Included is a USB charger, and it only takes about an hour to refill its battery.

The device attaches to the dog’s collar via a rubber strap, which in turn is linked to a plastic housing on which you connect the Whistle itself. The idea is that you can take the Whistle on and off easily without having to remove the entire collar assembly. The twist-and-lock mechanism requires you to press buttons on either side of the housing while turning the device to release it. It takes some practice to get used to, but the upside is if you can’t get it off, your dog can’t either.

The device can be submerged in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes at a time and is intended to withstand the dirt and dust a dog encounters on daily basis. We didn’t test the device in Lake Michigan during a Chicago winter, but I can certainly vouch for its overall toughness.

Hippo Lola wrestling

Our dogs are both agreeable, friendly pups, but when they play with one another they play rough. If you’re not used to it, it can be a bit frightening to see at first: a 110-pound whirlwind of thrashing limbs, tails and teeth. I’ve seen Lola lock her teeth down on Hippo’s Whistle and yank with all the strength a 50-pound pit bull terrier can muster. Not only have their devices continued to work without problem, they never once came off their mounts.

If there is a weak point, it’s the strap itself. Lola’s strap did tear, but she wears a metal-segment training collar, which likely sheared off the strap on her regular fabric collar when we walked her. Hippo uses a regular prong collar for training, and his strap shows no signs of wear. In any case, Whistle said a strap breaking was a rare occurrence and that the company would immediately replace any that did break free of charge.

The app

You set up Whistle by linking it to your iPhone (its Android app is in closed beta and will be available by spring) via Bluetooth. Once linked to your phone you can configure it to link to your Wi-Fi networks. The two-connection system means Whistle will eventually be able to transfer data over either network, meaning you’ll get activity updates while you’re away from home and while you’re away from dogs (only Wi-Fi upload is available in the current app, but Bluetooth transfer will be added in the next software update).

Whistle Screenshot Hippo 2Even if Whistle can’t find a connection, it stores all its accelerometer data in memory until one is available. Normally it tries to connect every hour, but you can manually trigger a transfer by tapping the button on the device. All of the dog’s daily activity then shows up on a graph in your app on the screen. Every time there’s a sustained period of activity, Whistle generates an event on its timeline, recording it as a walk, playtime or general activity.

Whistle determines those activities by analyzing accelerometer data and using its Bluetooth Low Energy connection as an additional sensor. For instance, it will detect Carolyn’s presence when she walks the dogs and give her credit on the timeline. The Bluetooth sensors can also tell by her changes in proximity to the dogs if she’s playing with the Hippo and Lola or if they’re just running around in our courtyard.

Once an event is generated you can comment on it as well as post pictures, allowing you to turn the timeline into a personalized record rather than just a mere stream of data. You also set daily goals for daily minutes of activity, and the app tracks how close you are to that goal via an on-screen meter. Touch a button, and you go into the long-term metrics screen, which shows you how often your dog hit its goal each week and compares its activity against dogs of similar breeds in Whistle’s database.

After a month of testing, I can say my wife and I now find Whistle indispensable. Our evening always ends with a conversation about whether Hippo and Lola met their goals, and on the days we may have neglected the dogs’ usual exercise routine, we find Whistle to be a good motivator to take our mutts on that extra evening walk.

Lola Screenshot WhistleBut the thing we weren’t expecting is how Carolyn and I began to use Whistle as a kind of personal social network similar to the ways many people use Couple or Path. Right now Whistle’s social features are limited. To view any dog’s activity stream you need to have the app installed and be registered as its owner. But perhaps because no one else had access to the app we were able to post pictures and ramble on about our pups in ways that would only annoy our Facebook(s fb) friends.

When we first started testing Whistle, I had to fly out to San Francisco for Gigaom’s Mobilize conference. As I was one of the conference organizers, I was swamped and had little time to talk to my wife. But while I was there, Carolyn posted pictures of Hippo and Lola’s antics to their timelines. While I never called, texted or emailed my wife while I was out in San Francisco, I interacted with her daily on Whistle.

Where Whistle is going

It’s easy to make the comparison today, but Whistle wants to be more than just a Fuelband for dogs. As I’ve written before, the San Francisco startup plans to become a big data operation, aggregating information from all of the pets that wear its device. It’s already working with veterinary schools and drug companies to see if its device can detect the onset of seizures and measure how dogs react to pain medication.

Whistle is still refining its algorithms, but as it gathers more data it will be able to distinguish more types of activities and events and compare that against other data, such as the nutritional information from particular dog food brands, CEO and co-founder Ben Jacobs told me in a recent interview. The idea is tap into as many points of the $50 billion pet care industry as possible.

The Whistle team in San Francisco

The Whistle team in San Francisco

But as Whistle builds that infrastructure, its consumer facing app will only benefit. Jacobs said its app will get several updates before the end of the year. First, Whistle plans to create more categories of activity: it will be able to distinguish a walk from a run and playtime from a swim, and it will know when your dog is sleeping peacefully versus restlessly, Jacobs said.

Second, Whistle will quantify its data in different ways. Right now the app only records minutes of activity. Minutes are very useful for tracking how much time you’re spending with your dog and its general level of engagement, but it’s not really a measure of actual exercise. For instance, I’ve taken Hippo jogging on a few occasions, but Whistle records a three-mile run and one-mile walk as the same 30 minutes of activity, regardless of how exhausted Hippo is at the end.

To rectify this, Whistle’s designers plan to create a kind of metric similar to Nike’s “Fuel Points” tied to the amount of calories burned based on type of activity and the dog’s weight. Those metrics will appear alongside the minute meter, allowing pet-owners to track their dog’s activity both quantitatively and qualitatively.

can of dogfoodIn the first half of 2014, Whistle will add the ability to enter dog food brand information so you can track the calories taken in versus calories put out. One of the company’s long-term goals is to create a service for veterinarians so they have access to behavioral data of the dogs under their care.

And though it’s not related to its data efforts, Whistle plans to beef up its social networking capabilities by the end of the year. It will start with the ability to post events to your outside social feed such as Facebook or Twitter(s twtr), but Jacobs said it will work on internal posting tools as well, allowing Whistle users to post pictures to other Whistle users streams.

As I pointed out beforehand, few people are interested in the day-to-day activities of our dogs, but we have plenty of friends with dogs, and we’re also involved with a dog-walking group called Chicago SociaBulls. Being able to cross post photos and comments from those group walks is a feature we’re looking forward to.

Should you buy a Whistle?

The device is $99.95 ($20 more if you get in engraved) and its available on Whistle’s website. It’s shipping today, though Jacobs said it is catching up on pre-orders for the next two weeks. Whistle, however, isn’t charging any kind of subscription fee for its service, and as new features are added to its app customers will get access to them free of charge. In fact, since Whistle is storing all of your dog’s data in the cloud, any new features will be applied to your timeline retroactively — those “walks” I made with Hippo will turn into runs.

Home appliances, connected home, internet of thingsI think it’s safe to say that the internet of things is going to be a very fractionalized part of consumer electronics industry. While smartphones are very general purpose communications tools, only a subset of consumers will find value in any given wearable, appliance or gadget that makes up the internet of things.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you Whistle would appeal to every dog owner. Your dog isn’t going to be any happier and it won’t necessarily be more active if it’s connected to the Whistle network. But as someone who spends much of his free time tending to his mutts, I find Whistle a very compelling gadget. My wife agrees, and she’s definitely not a tech geek. In fact, she has little use for the other gadgets and apps I try to foist upon her during the course of my job.

We’re definitely holding Whistle to its promise of adding more features, which would make the device a much more useful tool. But we’ve found even the limited feature set today to be plenty engaging — Whistle has become the most accessed app on my phone besides email. Once our beta trial is over, we’re definitely buying the device for both our dogs.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated Whistle’s Android app would be available by Christmas. It will actually be available by spring of 2014.

Dog food photo courtesy of Shutterstock user 6493866629; Home appliances image courtesy of Shutterstock user Maxx-Studio