Want to talk to your dog? Microsoft is working on it

From left to right, moderator Jason Preston, Con Slobodchikoff and Barry Briggs. Photo: Kris Krug.

Barry Briggs is an enterprise architect at Microsoft. Con Slobodchikoff is a renowned animal communication scientist known for his work on prairie dog linguistics.

You might assume that never the two shall meet, but two and a half years ago, at Future in Review (FiRe), the pair coalesced around their interest in animal communication. (Briggs wrote a book about whales called Shepherds of the Sea.)

Slobodchikoff was looking for a technology that could assess animal movements and postures, which make up a big part of their communication. To Briggs, the answer was obvious: Microsoft Kinect.

What emerged was a plan to decode dog language; to allow you, eventually, to understand exactly what your dog is trying so hard, through wagging and barking and whining, to communicate to you. And to facilitate you speaking back to them.

As Briggs puts it, anywhere between 2 and 4 million dogs are euthanized each year for behavioral problems. “We could solve that if we could hear their side of the story.”

At FiRe on Wednesday afternoon, the pair unveiled their progress so far: Working with Microsoft Research and the Kinect, they’ve modeled and catalogued a full range of body movements and postures of two dogs.

Audience members react to Slobodchikoff and Briggs’ work. Photo: Kris Krug.

That means they can now match dog movements with pre-identified poses, which an algorithm assesses to identify their mood. The next steps are putting together a dictionary of dog postures and zooming in on a dog’s face to be able to understand their facial expressions as well.

To do that they’re going to need a lot more data. And Briggs himself only has one dog — Joe, an Australian Shepherd. The duo is currently looking for help collecting and organizing sound and motion data from a variety of dogs of all shapes and sizes. (One audience member wryly suggested starting with YouTube.)

“One of the things we learned in the computer visioning project was that we actually picked the hardest species there is,” Briggs said. There are so many varieties — and different shapes and sizes — of dogs that standardizing a database of poses will be harder than they first expected.

Photo: Kris Krug.

In the meantime, Slobodchikoff has some advice for those interested in interpreting doggy emotions: Tail-wagging in itself doesn’t connote happiness. A dog can be just fine and wag its tail, but when it’s truly overjoyed, its tail will wag more to their left.

“Once we get to the point that we can have dialogue with animals, we will see them as seeing, thinking beings,” Slobodchikoff said.