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When Skype was born in 2003, it was only a matter of time before people started using it to video chat with their dogs. In fact, according to The Telegraph, more than half of British pet owners have Skyped with their pets while traveling — compared to about a quarter who have video chatted with their kids to read them a bedtime story.
But 13-year-old Brooke Martin wants to go a step further. She designed a gadget that attaches to a video-capable tablet or smartphone at a dog's eye level — and also acts as a mini vending machine, dispensing treats with a remote command from the owner. Her Kickstarter project is about one-third funded with five days to go.
Brooke says she wanted to help her family's rescue dog, Kayla, get over separation anxiety when they were on family vacations. "I thought about being able to connect with your dog while you were away from home to help comfort them," she says.
Here's how iCPooch works: The treat dispenser connects to your wireless Internet router, which connects to a remote device using a cloud-based server. The remote user can then give a "drop treat" command, which tells the dispenser at home to turn on its motor arm and push out a cookie.
For the video chat component, it simply uses existing Skype technology. The tablet or smartphone attached to the dispenser can be programmed to automatically answer incoming Skype calls.
Owners might like it because they can check on their pets from afar, and the dogs might like it because it would give them a physical connection to their missing owners.
"The dogs really are attracted to the device because of the cookie delivery," Martin says. "Our dog has figured out that the cookies are coming out of the device, so when she hears our voice on the thing, she comes over."
We can spot a few areas where the device might fall short. The software isn't completely developed yet, but you'll probably have to log on to the cloud server, switch to Skype and then use Skype instant messenger to give the "drop treat" command, which isn't a very seamless experience.
You have to supply your own smartphone or tablet to attach to the device, in addition to the cost of the device itself, and there's no built-in charger once it's attached. iPads can sit for days on standby, but Skyping does drain its battery.
There's also nothing to stop your dog from scratching, biting or peeing on it — so depending on the training of your dog, you might not feel comfortable leaving expensive electronics in easy reach.
But that hasn't stopped 239 people from backing the project on Kickstarter. And when you watch Brooke's video pitch, you kind of just want to high-five her for pursuing a business at age 13.
Emily Siner is an intern on NPR's Digital News desk.
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