If you’re passing through a dog park in Boston in the coming months and happen to catch a glimpse of a funny little device hanging off a pooch’s collar, don’t be surprised. A startup called SNIF Labs is gearing up to beta test a technology designed to help dogs–and their owners–become better acquainted.
SNIF Labs–the company’s name is short for Social Networking in Fur–is developing what its website calls “a custom radio communications protocol” that allows special tags dogs wear on their collars to swap dog and owner information with other SNIF-tag users. When two dogs wearing tags come within range of each other, the tags start to swap dog and even owner information.
Once owners are back home and using the company’s social-networking service, they can trade information about their dogs and themselves online. You already have dog ownership in common, the thinking goes, so maybe you’d be willing to share advice, restaurant recommendations, a drink, or more.
The move appears to be the next step in the social-networking revolution. Already, dog owners can meet online through canine-centric websites. “When people go to the dog park, they share a lot, but hardly ever a first name,” says Ted Rheingold, founder of Dogster.com, a social-networking site for people and their dogs. “The Internet gives people the freedom to share information. The dog becomes a kind of online avatar.” SNIF, of course, dispenses with the avatar. Whereas with Dogster, owners themselves are responsible for uploading information to the site, SNIF’s tags automate that process and make it happen in the real world.
SNIF goes beyond social-networking for dog-walkers: its technology allows for Internet-based monitoring of a pet’s daily activities when he or she is home alone. As long as Fido is in range of a base station installed at the home, the system can record when he sleeps, eats, walks, and even relieves himself. An owner can monitor this activity via any Web browser, whether at home or on a mobile device. He or she could even set up e-mail or SMS alerts for when, say, there is a big drop in activity levels, which may indicate that the dog is sick.
SNIF, which grew out of research at MIT’s Media Lab, says it is using proprietary radio technology to minimize privacy risk. While the company won’t comment on technology specifics in the run-up to beta testing, the company’s website says that the tags “continually change their IDs, making it impossible for our members to be tracked by strangers.” It’s not Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)–in which a tag “reader” sends out a signal that energizes a tag to send back data. The worry was that readable RFID tags might be both hackable and trackable, thus leaving a dog owner’s private information vulnerable.