First ‘walkies!’ Now talkies

Financial Times

February 28, 2004

Amy Yee tests the Japanese-made Bow-Lingual, whose makers claim to use voiceprint technology to translate dogs’ woofs into human language. 

Freddie may be chatty but that doesn’t mean I understand her. When I head for the door, she gets agitated and blinks her blonde lashes at me. I look down at the device in my hand that translates her protests. “I wish you made sense!” pops up on the small screen. Turns out I’m not the only who doesn’t get it.

Freddie is a dog who helped me test out the Bow-Lingual, a device made by Japanese company Takara that claims to translate dog barks into human language. When I greeted Freddie’s owner with a hug, she (the dog) raucously barked. According to the Bow-Lingual, Freddie was saying: “C’mon, play with me!”

With its bright plastic casing, the Bow-Lingual looks like a toy, but Takara insists it is a “serious scientific endeavour”. The company says it uses “sophisticated voiceprint technology that allows dogs and their owners to communicate more effectively”. It consists of a wireless microphone that fits on a dog collar and a device about the size of a walkie-talkie that analyses a bark and translates it into one of approximately 200 phrases.

Sceptics may scoff, but more than 250,000 have been sold in Japan since the product hit that market in November 2002, according to Takara. And it doesn’t hurt that prime minister Junichiro Koizumi presented Vladimir Putin with two Bow-Linguals on a visit to St Petersburg last year.

The English-language version began selling in the US last August in stores such as Brookstone and Sharper Image. Takara says it has been selling well, but it is too early yet to say with confidence that Americans will continue to fork out Dollars 120 to confirm that Lolli’s scratching on the door means he needs to use the toilet.

Takara has more planned. It is preparing for a European launch of the Bow-Lingual. Future models of the Bow-Lingual might have a television monitor that allows anxious owners to check in on their dogs. And for felines, the Meow-Lingual came out in Japan last November and is expected to hit shelves in the US later this year. Takara expects to sell 300,000 units by March and reports that many customers are “enjoying a new way to communicate with their cats”.

The Bow-Lingual has done well in Japan, where “lifestyle entertainment” – a cross between toys and gadgetry – is taken very seriously. Takara is one of Japan’s leading toymakers, but many products are aimed at adults since there are fewer children for the toy industry to target in Japan’s ageing population. In Japan it is normal to find adults obsessed with robot dogs or banana-shaped mobile phone covers.

And while lifestyle entertainment is not a driving force in the US, what Takara has in its favour is an obsession with pets. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, there are 65m pet dogs in the US and a Dollars 31bn pet product industry. In New York especially, people go to enormous lengths to pamper pets. There are grooming salons and pet hotels. Tiffany makes sterling dog tags and New York gyms offer dog yoga.

I realised just how much my approach to dogs had been skewed by New York dog mania when I saw a beagle in Boston one winter and thought: “He’s not wearing a sweater! He must be cold!”

Takara believes the Bow-Lingual’s technology outweighs its novelty. It was developed by Dr Matsumi Suzuki, an expert on acoustics who has studied human voiceprints and dolphin cries. For the Bow-Lingual, Dr Suzuki recorded thousands of barks from over 80 breeds that were broken down into frequency components and transformed into digital voiceprints.

Dr Norio Kogure, director of the Kogure Animal Hospital, observed dogs’ behaviour while barking and established a framework of six emotional categories: Happy, Sad, On-Guard, Frustrated, Assertive and Needy. Dr Kogure has published a book based on his findings, called Boku-Inu no Subete wo Oshieru Wan, which translates beautifully into English as: I, Dog, Will Tell You Everything About Myself, Woof!

Now that a dog can tell you everything about himself, will he tell you things you’d rather not know? I’ve often wondered what Oscar, a friend’s dachshund, was saying when he began barking madly at a neighbour’s door. Was it coincidence that the faint smell of marijuana wafted from beneath the door into the corridor? What would the Bow-Lingual say now? “Give me a toke”?

I didn’t encounter that particular phrase when I tested the Bow-Lingual, though there were other notable ones. I strapped the microphone around the neck of Thor, a beefy labrador I met in Wisconsin. “Thor!” I shouted. He stood up and barked. “Go ahead! Make my day!” read the Bow-Lingual. I tried more questions loaded with key words. “Want to go for a WALK?” I asked Thor. “Are you my friend or enemy?” Thor responded. “Want to go to the LAKE?” “Repeating yourself doesn’t help,” he bellowed back.

While Thor and I were “conversing”, there were a lot of “false signals”, meaning translations would appear on the screen even if Thor hadn’t barked. Perhaps the Bow-Lingual was telepathic? But a Takara spokesperson told me that the Bow-Lingual might pick up interfering radio waves, such as those emitted by mobile phones.

My next subject was Paige, a nine-month old yellow labrador, who has been trained to bark on command. “I might bite,” read the Bow-Lingual, but Paige’s tongue-lolling grin made her look more ready to offer licks. The Bow-Lingual manual warns that puppy barks, like adolescent voices, are still developing and may not give the most accurate translation.

Paige barked again and thumped her tail. “What should I do?” asked Paige. She answered her own question with the next bark: “I feel like dancing!” Maybe the Bow-Lingual knows something that I don’t.

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