This collaborative design project is helping dogs to talk

FluentPet uses a system of buttons to give pets a voice, but how is design, cognitive science and research combined to make it work and can dogs can interpret pictograms?

TikTok user @whataboutbunny has amassed more than seven million followers with short videos depicting her everyday life at home. Bunny routinely talks about seeing friends and living with family. But Bunny isn’t a social media influencer in the traditional sense of the word. She’s a dog – a sheepadoodle to be precise.

Bunny is one of a growing number of pets learning to talk to their owners. These animals are finding their voice because of a product called FluentPet – a system of buttons designed by Leo Trottier using principles of cognitive science.

@whataboutbunny The most pure #loveyou #whataboutbunny #socute #dogsoftiktok #talkingdog #doggo ♬ original sound – I am Bunny

“A set of rules that can largely be applied to all beings that think”

FluentPet isn’t the first pet-oriented product Trottier has designed. In 2016, he launched the CleverPet Hub – the “world’s first” games console for dogs. It is described as a way to “give your dog more than a walk” and offers several colour-based games for them to play.

Trottier’s interest in communicating with pets comes from his background in cognitive science, he says. “A distinctive feature of cognitive science is that it doesn’t restrict itself to particular domains and methodologies”, Trottier says.

“The more I studied, the more it became clear this is a set of rules that can largely be applied to all beings that think,” he says. Put simply: a brain is a brain, no matter the animal it is in.

The science of “chunking”

According to Trottier, the design of the buttons is a crucial part of the system. FluentPet buttons are firmly seated into hexagonal tiles, which each feature different colours and patterns.

These different patterns and colours help with “chunking”. Chunking refers to the way brains sort information into manageable groups. “We don’t say that it’s the 217th day of the year – we refer to the day, date, month and year,” explains Trottier.

In a similar fashion, the hexagonal grid of FluentPet buttons also helps animals to chunk information into different “neighbourhoods”. Different hexagonal sections are devoted to different areas of conversation: for example, action words, sentence objects (other household pets or owners for instance), adjectives and places.

More advanced word board configurations can even factor in sentence elements for posing questions or using “manners” (words like please and thank you).

@oldcatnewtricks It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but he’s still going hard on that treat game. #cat #catsoftiktok #seniorcat #fluentpet #fyp #talktoanimals #cats ♬ Steven Universe – L.Dre

Grids versus hexagons

The hexagon tile shape itself is important design choice too, Trottier says. FluentPet is not the first attempt by humans to connect with their pets via buttons, Trottier explains, and it improves on previous efforts. The most notable example pre-dating FluentPet comes from speech pathologist Christina Hunger and her dog Stella, who post their “conversations” on Instagram.

Hunger and Stella use buttons mounted in a grid to a plywood board. But while he says their progress is undeniable Trottier explains the grid arrangement is unhelpful for chunking. A hexagonal arrangement is “the best way to arrange circles” as it helps learners remember things spatially, Trottier says. “If the buttons are in a uniform grid, indistinguishable from each other, the cognitive load of forcing counting on users to be accurate is a lot,” he says.

The system also offers a practical advantage. Deep-set buttons ensure pets don’t knock them over while trying to communicate. Meanwhile puzzle-like connectors between tiles ensures learners’ vocabulary can keep on expanding without taking over the home. In a chat with the New York Times, Bunny’s owner Alexis Devine says the dog’s vocabulary is up to 92 words.

@tai_tai_talks The new “lizard” button is a perfect opportunity to teach “all done” #potcake #fluentpet #fyp #talkingdog #smartdog #hungerforwords #rescuedog #dogmom ♬ original sound – Tai

“We’re nurturing a community”

Trottier stresses that there are no “experts” in the field of talking to animals. FluentPet’s knowledge is a combination of two elements, he says: what is working right now, and educated guesses. For this reason, the continued design development of FluentPet is hugely connected to its users, he says.

For example, when the team experimented with putting pictogram icons on the buttons, they got almost real-time responses as to whether or not this helped communication. “We were fairly certain that pictograms wouldn’t hurt the process, but have since worked out with our users that dogs don’t seem to use them,” he says.

Alongside getting to see users on social media sharing their pets’ progress, Trottier and his team has also established the How They Can Talk research project. “We’re nurturing a community so that instead of it taking teams of coders and scientists working for decades, we might have some answers in the next couple of years,” he says.

“This is a deliberately crowd sourced project which is throwing lots of things at the wall and seeing what sticks,” he adds. “When no one has the exact answer, you have to kind of just see what works – in this way, we like to think of it as a virtuous cycle between product design, science and research.”

@justinbieberthecat_ Guess who learned “mad”  #talkingcat #catbuttons #fluentpet
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