Remote Control Your Dog with a Haptic Vest

Dogs outfitted with vibrating vests can be controlled with the click of a mouse

4 min read
Researcher Yoav Golan holds a remote control while dog Tai, wears the haptic vest.
Photo: Jonathan Atari

Humans and dogs make good teams. Working dogs have helped humans in one way or another for something like 15,000 years, and fortunately for us, dogs have been consistently clever enough to translate human modes of communication into commands that they can understand. They're able to respond to auditory signals (including spoken language and things like whistles) as well as visual signals like hand movements.

This is all well and good if you're in close proximity to your dog, and if you're able to take advantage of those modes of communication yourself. But for search and rescue dogs and military working dogs that may operate beyond line of sight, or for people with some kinds of disabilities, neither of those communication options might be available.

In Amir Shapiro's lab at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, researchers have been training dogs to respond to haptic cues from a vibrating vest. Or rather, they've been training one specific dog, named Tai, who has been a very good boy about the whole thing and has successfully shown that wireless remote control of your pupper is both possible and practical.

Tai and his haptic vest.

Tai (a six-year-old lab and German Shepherd cross) is wearing a vest with embedded haptic vibration units. The general principle is the same as having your phone on vibrate in your pocket—you can feel a buzz when it goes off. Tai's vest has four units in it: front and back units, and left and right units, all controlled wirelessly. Using positive reinforcement in the form of treats, Tai was verbally taught to associate four commands with distinct 1.5-second-long vibration patterns: a constant vibration in the front right means spin, a pulsing vibration in the front right means walk backward, pulsing in the front left means approach, and constant vibration in both rear units means lie down.

It took less than an hour to train Tai for each task, and he did just as well following the haptic commands as he did following verbal commands (better, in some cases). The researchers suggest that dogs could be taught to follow a wide variety of commands using haptic vests like these, with potential benefits in several scenarios:

Non-vocal communication may prove beneficial in many cases, such as discrete contact with [military working dogs], increasing capabilities of [search-and-rescue dogs] and other working dogs, reconnecting with run-away pets, communication by speech-impaired handlers, and even communicating with deaf dogs. Our current proof-of-concept study shows promising results that open the way towards the use of haptics for human-canine communication.

For more, we spoke with first author Yoav Golan via email.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us more about Tai?

Researcher Yoav Golan and Tai.Photo: Dror Einav

Yoav Golan:I raised Tai as a seeing eye pup, and got him back after he failed the seeing eye course. He is easily distracted by dogs and cats, has a tendency to pull with force on walks, and has a "sniffing problem" (he likes to sniff a lot on walks). Tai is one of nine in a litter bred by the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. A fun fact is that only one of the nine siblings became a seeing eye dog, and that dog, named Tango, was raised by my co-author Ben Serota. That is actually how we knew each other, and what drew us to do the project together.

What was your experience like training Tai to respond to haptic commands? 

It was surprisingly easy. I am not a professional trainer in any way, but it still did not take long to teach him the different commands. It is important to note that Tai already knew the four commands vocally, meaning that the training was more of a "translation" to haptic commands, rather than training a new command altogether. Still, I don't see any reason that haptic commands would be any more difficult than vocal commands, and possibly might be easier. Vocal commands are difficult because they are inherently inconsistent (we never say things twice in the exact same way), and are mixed with a lot of noise (other words, and actual noise). Haptic commands are much clearer in that respect, and therefore may be easier to train, but we haven't tested this yet.

Are the number of different haptic commands and the complexity of those commands similar to what one can achieve through verbal communication with a dog?

While we haven't tested the upper limit of haptic training cues, in my opinion a dog can learn as many different commands as it can distinguish the difference between. Meaning, I don't see any reason that if a dog can learn 100 vocal commands, it can't learn 100 haptic commands, providing it can tell them apart. If we assume that a dog can understand more modalities than tested (i.e., tell the difference between further temporal modulations, or mixed spatial and temporal commands), this number rises hugely. Furthermore, we used four motors out of convenience, and there's no reason I see [to not] add more motors at other locations on the dog's body (around the neck, along the spine, at the belly), which adds even more possibilities.

Can you elaborate on what "fully or partially autonomic dog training" means?

This is kind of science-fiction-y, but there are dog vests that recognize a dog's position using accelerometers (lying down, sitting, running), and can dispense treats to the dog. You could integrate the two vests, and a computerized training regime, to get autonomic training. Meaning, you could put a vest on a dog, set it to train the dog "sit," and the vest would detect the dog's pose, issue a command, and reward the dog if it sits. Eventually the dog will learn to associate the command with sitting, without human intervention.

Dogs in pounds are more likely to be adopted if they are basically trained, so you could conceivably use a vest like this for a lot of dogs in a pound at once, without having to hire expert trainers, which are expensive and hard to find (which is why very few pounds try to train their dogs). Since the commands are haptic, two dogs can be trained nearby each other without interfering in each other's session. A human can be involved to supervise, or to train a dog more efficiently. For instance, if you want to train a dog to follow commands without a line of sight, you could issue the command remotely, see if the dog followed the command (via the sensors), and give the dog a reward—all from a distance and without a line of sight.

A Vibrotactile Vest for Remote Human-Dog Communication, by Yoav Golan, Ben Serota, Amir Shapiro, Oren Shriki, and Ilana Nisky from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, was presented at the World Haptics Conference on 12 July in Tokyo, Japan.

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.