Can This Interactive Vest Expand the Uses of Service Dogs Even Further?

A Georgia Tech team is working on FIDO, an interactive vest with sensors, GPS, and speakers so service dogs can communicate better to humans.


“Wearable tech” is the fashionable new buzz-phrase for whatever the future of the Internet is going to be, and that goes for dogs, too. This week, NPR did a report on one potential application: Dr. Melody Jackson, director of the the Center for BioInterface Research at Georgia Tech, has been heading up research and development of an interactive vest to be used by service dogs.

Although the training that service dogs get nowadays produces some truly incredible results, what Jackson seems to be saying is that they’re inherently limited by the fact that they can’t talk. To address that, Jackson and her team are working on the FIDO (Facilitating Interaction for Dogs with Occupations) vest.

Other than providing perhaps the most extreme example of a backronym that you’re likely to find this month, the purpose driving FIDO is to allow service dogs to give a broader range of help to their handlers than can be accomplished through nudges, barks, and yelps. Jackson gives the example of dogs who are trained to help out people with epilepsy. Seizure dogs are trained to help their owners in a number of ways, including by alerting family members, cushioning the fall with their bodies, or just staying nearby to comfort and assist the person when they start to come out of the seizure. With a FIDO vest, Jackson says, the dog would also be able to call 911 by tugging on a sensor.

She also says that it could change how search and rescue dogs work. She told NPR, “What happens with the search and rescue dogs typically is that they’ll find the target, they have to re-find their handler, and then they have to re-find the target again … But what if the dog could stay with the person that they found, activate a sensor on their vest that would geo-locate, and send a message to the search and rescue saying ‘Hey, I found the person and I’m going to stay with them.'”

As wearable tech goes, the FIDO vest certainly sounds more practical and less annoying than the much-hyped Google Glass, at least if Jackson and her team can work out the kinks that always show up in a project like this. In some ways, it just makes the things that service dogs already do more accessible. For instance, seizure dogs are often trained to hit an alert system calling emergency services. It’s just not typically strapped to their backs. However, last year, there was a fascinating case of a seizure dog who figured out how to use a cell phone to call 911.

Whether FIDO becomes a practical reality remains to be seen. Lots of great, useful ideas wind up becoming nothing but vaporware, even with smart people backing them. But at least it shows some more interesting possibilities in wearable tech than we’ve seen so far.


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