No one can love you more than your pet and nothing hurts worse than losing it. 10 million pets go missing every year in the US and 1/3 of all pets get lost at least
once during their life. It's no wonder that pet tracking technology is becoming a priority for owners. Unfortunately, most of the technology available is flawed. So,
during the Cornell Animal Health Hackathon, my team decided to provide a more comprehensive, cost-effective solution to it and apparently, it was impressive
enough to win the Grand Prize for $3000. I was the sole designer of this two-day project and guided the design process including the companion application.
Market, Technology and User Research
Since the team was composed of three veterinarians, two engineers and one designer/me, the vets took charge of the business aspects of the project while the rest
worked on the product. We decided to call the product Retriever as it would 'retrieve' your pet by empowering you. To validate our hypotheses, we sent out a
SurveyMonkey study to various pet owners in our network who confirmed that this was a problem worth looking into.While conducting the market research, we
discovered two solutions that tried to deal with this problem: microchipping, and GPS collars - but both suffer from drawbacks.
For GPS collars, battery life renders them useless after only a few days and if you’re not personally available to search in the window of time while the GPS is on,
you could be out of luck.
For microchips, only animal industry professionals have the hardware to read the chips. Owners don’t understand that the chips aren’t tracking their pets, and
emergency contact info is often woefully out of date.
While trying to find potential technology solutions that could alleviate the issues without affecting the pros, we came across the concept of NFC tags - a small factor
chip available on most smartphones which could be configured to send texts, make calls or open up webpages simply by scanning. This seemed like the perfect
solution to negate the issues we found. By targeting a larger base of mobile phone users, the ability to find and identify lost pets would be transferred to actual
owners rather than just animal industry professionals.
After we conducted our due diligence, we realized the impact that NFC tags could play in Retriever's solution. However, that was just one part of the design. The
edge cases had to be considered. I guided this discussion to quite an extent due to my design experience. The questions that needed to be asked were:
∙How will the design notify the owner that the pet is lost?
∙How will owners let others know if their pet is lost?
∙How will others let concerned owners know that their pet is found?
∙How can others help lost pet owners search for their pet?
To answer these questions, the team sat down and brainstormed on different solutions to these edge cases. There was no required number of solutions that each
member had to come up with due to the time constraint of two days. Instead, the entire team simply elaborated on each others' ideas and suggested improvements
to them. Then, each team member voted on their favorite ideas. One particular solution that seemed to answer all the questions was a companion application that
would be a one-stop for all the communication.
The next step was designing Retriever's NFC chip holder. Initially, we considered injecting the chip into the pet's body, similar to the microchip technology. However,
we realized that the technology will have to be ubiquitous for people to implicitly know that they need to scan the pet. Hence, we decided to place the chip in a
collar. Instructions can be provided on the collar. An added advantage of the collar will be a sound and light output when the pet is lost. The collar could flash with
activated lights to ensure that the pet can be found even in the dark. Further, an audio clip that says the pet is lost and the collar should be scanned could play.
Based on the research conducted and our brainstorming sessions, I finalized the following features for the design. Retriever would rely on crowdsourcing and would
incorporate three layers of security in the collar; WiFi sniffers, GPS trackers and NFC tags. All communication from the 'crowd' would be handled through the
companion application which could be downloaded for free. If the pet leaves the house, the WiFi sniffer will detect that the collar isn't attached to the home WiFi
anymore. Then, the GPS tracker is enabled which sends an alert to the owner's phone that the pet has left the house. The owner can then track the pet easily
through the application. By incorporating the LTE M1 chip which has GPS functionality and 6 months battery life for a low cost, owners don't need to worry about
the GPS switching off.
However, our research showed that relying on GPS alone wasn't successful. Hence, we provided the security blanket of NFC tags in the collar. Since NFC scanning
functionality is there on most phones, people who find the pet could simply scan it and communicate with the owner easily. If the application is on a person's phone,
they can easily communicate with the owner. However, if they don't have the application, a webpage will open up stating that they have found a lost pet and they
can provide their choice of contact information to the owner. All this information is kept personal through a third party bot.
Prototype and Business Proposal
I designed the companion application on Sketch and implemented the prototype on Invision. The application allows you to mark your pet as lost, send out public
alerts with rewards, join searches for lost pets, scan tags of lost pets and easily communicate with owners. You can even 'call' owners and their pet's name will pop
up as a call. Owners also have the option of switching on 'Walk Mode' which ensures that the owner can take the pet out with the collar on without worrying about
the GPS tracker getting activated and sending notifications.
While we worked on the prototype, the veterinarians worked on our business proposal to sell our product at the hackathon. Our business plan was similar to the cell
phone industry, in that our primary revenue stream is subscription based. Retriever anticipated prices $99 for the hardware, with a $50 annual subscription fee.
Adding additional animals to the account will come at a discount, with a price of $20 a year for each one up to five.
What made our design stand out was its well-thought out and comprehensive design. That was why we won two prizes at the hackathon: The Grand Prize and
First Place in the Hardware category. We are currently working to improve on the design by incorporating QR codes instead of NFC tags to make the design
easier to understand and use. During the hackathon, multiple VCs approached us so, we are also working on filing a patent for our design before launching our
rapid prototyping phase.