Project Description

A Sensor-y Life
When a company invites you to “live more playfully,” it’s a difficult proposition to refuse—especially when connected technology is involved. This is exactly why I’ve been so excited to try out one of the first sensor kits released by GreenGoose—a company that’s creating small, often stick-on sensors to make the little things in life more enjoyable.

How can sensors improve quality of life? Essentially, by turning the day-to-day grind into a game. Once you begin adding little sensors to just about everything in reach, you can begin quantifying things like the number of steps you’re taking each day, the number of sips you take from your water bottle, and exactly how many minutes you spend walking your dog. While you could simply keep track of all this in your head, where’s the fun in that? There’s a reason elementary-school teachers gave us little gold stars for doing good things. It’s the same reason you take your daughter out for ice cream after her piano recitals. Rewards, even when they are as trivial as a sticker, tend to motivate us.

When I was in college, for instance, I would set up little dark chocolate candies at my desk, eating one after completing each homework assignment or task on my to-do list. The treats were a tangible reward for doing what I needed to do. Would I have studied just as hard without the chocolate? Yes … but it would have been a lot less fun.

A similar concept is being applied by today’s app developers and device manufacturers that are leveraging realtime information and an always-on society to provide all sorts of “rewards” for performing specific actions. You’re probably already familiar with the concept of earning virtual badges or discounts for “checking in” to a location via mobile device. Many connected fitness devices similarly harness the power of realtime feedback, providing encouragement as you reach milestones, then sending the data to a Web portal that aggregates your progress. Quantifiable fitness data can be very motivating; it shows how far you’ve come, and encourages you to keep going.

What we’re really talking about is a trend called “gamification”—adding game-type elements to real-life applications in an effort to make everyday life more enjoyable. And this is where the San Francisco-based startup, GreenGoose, comes in.

Pet Starter Kit
GreenGoose’s Pet Starter Kit ($49) consists of a green egg-shaped hub, a power supply, an Ethernet cable, and four sensors—one for a leash, a collar, a food scoop, and a treat container. To get started, you must plug the GreenGoose Egg (the hub) into your Wi-Fi router and a power source. Next, sign up for an account and help the system find your four sensors.

To do this, follow the onscreen instructions, which include placing the sensors near the GreenGoose Egg while they say hello and agree to work together.

The next task is to attach the sensors to the objects you’d like to measure. In the case of the Pet Kit, stick the food and treat sensors to a food scoop and a treat container. The leash and collar sensors are not stickers; they look like plastic gift tags, about three inches long and one inch wide. Loop your pet’s collar or leash through the hole at the top. Improving your pet-ownership skills starts with this little green egg (the “hub”). Lastly, download the free demo app, Petagonia, which as of this writing is available only on iOS.

Once you’re set up, whenever you use the food scoop to fill your pet’s bowl, the accelerometer inside the sticky sensor will wirelessly communicate the action to the hub. Similarly, when you tip the treat box or pull the leash out of the closet, the sensors register that movement and transmit it, as long as you’re within the recommended 100-300-foot range.

Each wireless sensor is programmed to detect a specific action. When it detects that action, the message travels through the base station to the GreenGoose database, shortly before a record of your behavior pops up online. This Web component is really where everything comes together. When you sign into your online account or open up your Petagonia app, you’ll see each sensor’s activity reflected in near realtime with little messages like “Bethanie gave Bella a treat on Fri May 31 at 6:55 AM.” It’s not only a virtual pat on the back, it’s an interactive way to get the whole family involved in pet ownership, keeping track of who’s done what and when it needs to happen again.

Trial and Error
For me and my husband, Green Goose’s Pet Kit held promise. Of particular interest was the “treat” sensor, because one of our kittens—an adorable, yet sickly little thing—needs twice-daily vitamin supplements to help ward off upper-respiratory infections. While we thought we had a bulletproof plan—he doled out the vitamins in the morning and I did the same at night—we were wrong; the plan stunk. My husband would run out of time on his early-shift mornings, and I would forget on the days I had night classes.

Our somewhat-lamentable pet ownership skills led to some days when Bella received too few or too many vitamins (not harmful, just expensive). When the GreenGoose kit came along, if we were ever again in doubt about whether Bella got her vitamins, we could simply check the Petagonia app. Best of all, no more excess texting about the cat.

With this goal in mind, we slapped the sticky sensors on the food scoop and the bag of “treats,” plus attached the collar sensor to our larger kitten (aptly named “Goose”). It took a few days to get the system to work properly. At first, the hub needed to be reset pretty frequently because it would simply stop picking up the sensors’ movements. After adjusting the placement of our hub to slightly higher ground (and straightening out its little “antenna”), we achieved more reliable success. When you open the app, you can scroll through the different sensors you have paired to see the last recorded activity. If you were the one who walked or fed your pet, you can “claim” the activity. The app will assign your username to the activity you’ve claimed.

I can imagine this solution could be useful in a family setting. Mom and dad could make sure someone fed Spot before school, and if the app notices it has been too long between walks or feedings, it will send a notification (such as, “I’m so hungry, I’m about to eat pickles out of your fridge”) to each caretaker.

We did not use the leash sensor, but it was certainly fun to monitor Goose’s activity level throughout the day via the collar sensor, and to keep track of feedings (and Bella’s vitamins) on our smartphones. While as of right now, we still double check the app to make sure we’re not skimping on supplements, we’ll eventually trust the system enough to say: Sayonara cat-vitamin texts!

Sensorific Plans
Admittedly, GreenGoose has some kinks to work out. There are several improvements I’d like to see from the Pet Starter Kit. First, before Petagonia is a truly functional app (it’s still in a sort of ‘demo’ phase), it will need to be more reliable. In my experience, even when the Website picks up on the sensors’ movement, the app doesn’t always reflect the activity (even when it is refreshed and given some time). Secondly, the collar sensor needs to be smaller. The current size may be fine for medium or large dogs, but it’s too inhibiting for small dogs or cats.

The Pet Kit is just the first step for GreenGoose. Already, there are more than 100 new types of sensors in development, ranging from a sensor that will measure how long you brush your teeth, to a sensor that keeps track of when the toilet seat is put back down—both useful for kids learning the ropes. Other applications might include a sensor to make sure grandpa takes his medicine, or a sensor stuck on a water bottle to keep track of fluid intake. You could even stick one on a Frisbee to log activity, or on a vacuum to track daily chores.

I admire what GreenGoose has set out to do. The company is creating a more connected world by giving the things around us a way to report on our daily activities. Low-cost, stick-on sensors have the unique ability to add intelligence to nearly any thing, and the applications are really only limited by our imaginations.