Loser: Social Networking Goes To The Dogs

A $200 RFID dog tag tells owners--and their neighbors--when their pets are alive, at home, and sniffing things

PHOTO: Mark Peterson/Redux

Social Networking

Burberry dog leash: US $195. Goyard collapsi­ble dog bowl: $1970. A case of 12 cans of Pinnacle Holistic Trout and Sweet Potato formula: $19. Meeting your virtual soul mate online after walking your pooch: priceless.

The pet industry, worth about $40 billion in the United States alone, is in a growth spurt, up 65 percent since 2000. Pet products are branching out as never before in new and glamorous directions—and also in a few weird ones.

In that latter category you might put some of the many pet-oriented social-networking sites, such as Dogster. People who don’t share a household with an animal might find it hard to fathom the appeal of a Web site that allows a pet owner to maintain a profile of his furry companion, along with anecdotes, a list of its friends, and of course the dog’s astrological sign. (Some of these sites have an e-mail function: ”Send a message to this dog.”) But wait, it gets weirder.

What’s missing from all these sites is the real-time element. Sure, it’s fine that Rufus the bulldog is a Scorpio, but what’s he doing right now? A company called Snif Labs, in Boston, is out to rectify this shortcoming. Snif has created a colorful little dog tag that purports to monitor a pet’s activity levels, track the walking habits of its friends and enemies, and share it all in an online community, with profiles for pets and owners alike. The tag does a little bit of everything, though none of it all that well. With its accompanying base station and software, the tag will sell for $199.95.

The company’s name is an acronym for Social Networking in Fur, and it began life at MIT’s Media Lab. The Snif engineers are banking on a spring 2008 launch of this one product, which they contend will help neighboring dog owners to befriend one another. Basically, they have combined a radio-­frequency-­identification (RFID) tag with an accelerometer. The tag is battery powered and transmits its identifying code, as well as receives and stores other codes, when in range of another tag’s antenna.

The idea is that when a dog goes for a walk and encounters other Snif-tagged pooches, the tags will exchange each other’s identifiers. Then, when each dog returns home, its tag transmits to the base station any codes it collected while the dog was out for its stroll. The dog’s owner can check the Snif Labs online community to find out more about the dogs the pet encountered, along with information about those dogs’ owners. Empowered by this data, the humans can swap profiles and declare each other virtual friends, without ever chatting in person. All this from a collar that is, as the Snif Labs Web site puts it, ”hi-tech” and ”hi-style.”

What the experts say

”Who else but an engineer could imagine substituting a sophisticated computing and communications network for ’Your dog looks friendly’.”
Nick Tredennick

But Jeff Clavier, an early investor in Dogster through his venture capi­tal firm SoftTech VC, in Palo Alto, Calif., cautions that launching a successful social-networking site takes a lot more work than just signing people up—or, in this case, selling collar tags. ”Once an initial community is off the ground, it’s really a big challenge to get them to come back a second time, a fifth time, let alone every week,” he says.

To overcome the first challenge of finding tech-savvy ­customers for the tag, Snif Labs is planning to target dog owners living in wealthy parts of Boston, New York, and San Francisco, according to John Gips, the company’s chief technology officer. The tag and its base station will work best in ­modest-size apartments, where the two components will stay in more or less constant communication. The tags have motion sensors (think pedometers for pets), and when one is within range of the base station, it transmits that motion data to the pet owner’s computer and to Snif’s Web site. This allows ­owners to remotely observe their pets’ activity levels—a proxy, the company posits, for overall health. Dog owners living in more spacious quarters will be out of luck unless they invest in more hardware, because the base station can pick up the tag’s signal only within a distance of about 15 meters.

When set to do so, a pet’s online profile can reflect when the dog is at home, by virtue of whether the base station senses a tag. The network of Snif tag owners then can see when friendly dogs or enemy hounds might be out for a walk. The company touts this feature as a way to avoid meeting combative dogs—or to track down that cute dog owner you saw the other day.

Here’s one scenario: say Fifi and Rufus don’t get along. Fifi’s owner wants to take her for a walk, but sees on Rufus’s profile that he’s not home. Does this mean he’s asleep in a far corner of the apartment, beyond range of the base station, or is he lurking in the park they both frequent? Fifi’s owner isn’t sure, so she spends the next several hours waiting for proof that Rufus is home before Fifi, too, can socialize with the right sort of dogs.

”It’s expensive and a little peculiar, and my guess is that at first they’re only going to get pretty weird people with a lot of money to throw around,” predicts Dawn Iaccobucci, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has been studying online social networking. ”Do I really want other people to know when my dog’s not home?”

Snif Labs is not the first to try to sell pet-watching products; earlier efforts have tried using RFID chips or GPS capabilities, says Michael Dillon, president of Dillon Media, a pet-industry consulting firm in Berkeley, Calif. ”But they haven’t done well. And remote moni­toring—setting up cameras at home and so forth—hasn’t caught on either. For whatever reason, it’s been hard for these companies to get off the ground.”

The pet items that tend to succeed either are status symbols—that Burberry leash—or they simplify ­owners’ lives, says David Lummis, a senior pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, in Rockville, Md., a consumer goods research firm. ”Usually, it’s a function of what a pet needs,” Lummis says. ”In terms of high-tech products, things like automated watering and feeding devices have done well, because they do something really useful for pet owners who spend a lot of time away from home.” Neither Lummis nor any other pet-product ­watchers contacted for this story had noticed much zeal for home-monitoring equipment.

That’s not to say that, for the extra-passionate subsection of the apartment-dwelling pet-­owning population with disposa­ble income, watching a graph of a pet’s movements couldn’t become as much a part of their daily routine as checking stock quotes is for others. But a dog owner’s health concerns are rarely so simple. If a dog is sluggish, an owner caring enough to remotely monitor the pet will undoubtedly notice the animal’s lethargy. A really good product would provide a better read on pet health and would be both affordable and functional in spaces larger than a one-bedroom apartment. That might leave pet owners to meet each other the old-fashioned way—by saying hello when they meet in person. A social-networking site needs more than, say, several dozen dogs on Park Avenue to bring people back time and again.

It’s no surprise, then, that Gips hinted the company might do better if it were folded into an existing pet-networking site. Given the strength of the pet economy, it’s conceivable that Snif Labs will be bought out by a larger entity. But will the tag itself herald a new era of pet-owner synergy? We don’t think so.

SNIF Tag

Loser: social network

Goal: To enable remote health monitoring and ­community-oriented social networking for pet owners.

Why It’s a Loser: The RFID tag is not sophisticated enough to offer users practical information.

Player: Snif Labs

Where: Boston

Staff: Info not available

Budget: Info not available

More:http://www.sniflabs.com

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