High-tech harness lets the blind check on their guide dogs

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PhD student Sean Mealin (seen here with Simba) is lead author of a paper on the research, and is also blind himself(Credit: North Carolina State University)

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Humans communicate primarily in a verbal manner, while dogs rely more on visual cues. While this can make communication between the two species challenging at the best of times, it's particularly difficult when the human is unable to see the dog – as is the case with blind people and their guide dogs. As a result, it may not always be possible for owners to know when their guide dogs are stressed. An experimental new harness, however, may be able to help.

Developed by a team at North Carolina State University, the harness contains a plethysmograph and an electrocardiogram, which monitor the dog's respiration and heart rate, respectively. The output of those sensors is analyzed by a Beaglebone Black microcomputer (appropriately enough), located in the base of the harness handle.

If they wish, users can monitor their dogs' vital signs via audio cues sent from the computer to a Bluetooth headset. While this method actually proved to be quite popular with blind test subjects, the scientists believe that it could be distracting in real-world use – particularly given how much the blind already rely on their sense of hearing to assess their environment.

That's why the system also incorporates two vibrating motors, at either end of the top tube of the handle. One of those vibrates in time with the dog's heartbeat, while the other vibrates in time with the animal's breathing. This setup was found to be just as accurate as the audio-based system, delivering haptic feedback signals to the user's thumb and pinky finger.

Additionally, users can choose to hear/feel the dog's breathing and heart rate continuously, or to only be notified when they change significantly. The former allows users to check on the animal at any time, while the latter is less bothersome, only making itself known when necessary.

A paper on the team's findings was recently presented at the Second International Congress on Animal Computer Interaction, in Malaysia. The researchers previously designed a similar system, which would allow people to remotely monitor the well-being of search-and-rescue dogs at disaster sites.

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