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Communications

Social Networking for Dogs

Now, owners can meet each other by swapping information between chips mounted on Fido’s collar.

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.

John Williams, who directs the Auto-ID Labs at MIT, a leading center of RFID research that is not connected to SNIF, says that the technical details are unclear but that “they seem to be using the ‘handshake’ idea that the cell-phone companies are using, so that cell phones know when other cell phones are nearby.” But SNIF declined requests for interviews, and a representative said in an e-mail that it’s instituting a “media blackout” until Federal Communications Commission testing of its product begins next month.

Whatever the details of the company’s wireless methods, the larger question is whether dog owners will rush to adopt the concept. Valdis Krebs, the developer of software for social-network analysis, doubts that people will want to fork over money for a device that essentially only digitizes what they’re already doing: meeting people while on walks with their dogs. “I don’t need a device to tell me whether my dog is happy with other dogs,” says Krebs, who happens to be a dog owner. “And just because I meet another dog owner doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll share the same tastes in movies or restaurants.”

But Rheingold says that he’s been amazed at what he calls the “passion-centric” nature of the pet market. Through Dogster, he’s seen people form long-lasting friendships, all because they met online through their dogs. More than 280,000 dogs are currently listed on the Dogster site.

SNIF’s website says that its tags are going on sale in boutique stores in Boston in November, and it gives an online form for preordering the tags. There’s no word yet on what the service will cost.

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