Thinking about new ways to talk to his dog, A.J. Peper, the founder of Command Sight, came up with an idea that the US Army says could revolutionize the way special operations forces direct military working dogs on the battlefield.
It's augmented reality for canines, and it works.
Over the past few years, the Army has been developing a mixed-reality heads-up display for its soldiers based on Microsoft's HoloLens technology.
Considering the potential applications of augmented reality headsets, Peper, who started a small technology company striving to bridge communication gaps between humans and canines, took a very different approach. "Why not put a HoloLens on a dog?" he thought.
Taking a regular pair of Rex Specs goggles, already used for canine eye protection by the military, Peper added an optoelectronic component, creating a heads-up display where visual cues can be placed in a digital overlay of the real world to direct and guide the animals.
Working with handlers, military working dogs track down narcotics, find explosives, and even engage enemy combatants. A Special Forces dog named Conan, for example, helped take down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last fall and was awarded a medal by the president.
The augmented reality goggles that Peper invented are connected to a command interface that the handler can use to not only see what the dog sees but also communicate with the animal in real time, making their interaction more effective.
Using a chest- or wrist-mounted display or a laptop, Peper explained, "the handler could see the dog's environment and click anywhere or on any object in that environment to which they wanted to draw the dog's attention."
The Army, which has been supporting the project through the Army Research Office and its Small Business Innovation Research program, is very interested in the goggles.
Stephen Lee, a senior Army Research Lab scientist with a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry, told Insider that "if we can, in a canine's augmented reality, place a point, like a laser point, to guide the dog when it's going around a turn or into a building to a specific spot and we can see what the dog sees at the same time, that will help revolutionize how we use military working dogs off leash."
'A better way to talk to my dog'
Before he became an inventor, Peper was on a path towards a career in education, but after getting his Ph.D. in educational leadership, he decided to leave academia and instead become a consultant for emerging technology projects.
Throughout these endeavors, Peper, a "big dog lover" who has been very passionate about their training since he was a kid, was also involved in Shutzhund, a kind of advanced dog training focused on protection.
The idea that led Peper to launch his own company — developing a mixed-reality headset for canines — came in early 2017, when Peper asked himself, "How can I merge the fun and interesting parts of technology with the passion I have for dogs and training?"
That got him thinking about human-canine communication. "I wish there was a better way to talk to my dog," he thought. And, that's when it hit him.
With help from various partners, he quickly put together a working prototype, and with a functional prototype, he was able to start testing with his dog, Mater — the mascot for his company, Command Sight.
Augmented reality for dogs is cool, but the big question was whether or not the animal can actually do anything with the information that is delivered to them. "The resounding answer from the tests that I've run is yes," Peper said.
The testing, which was conducted safely and humanely and was not at all invasive, involved putting the goggles on Mater and then using the command interface to place an augmented reality indicator in Mater's field of view to identify an object of interest. Peper's dog would then energetically run to that object.
"You can imagine my jubilation when I put the system on my dog, fired it up, and he reacted to the indicator. Up until that point, it had all been theory," Peper told Insider. "I was jumping up and down and beside myself. It was a really amazing moment."
As Mater had never worn goggles, it took him about a week to get used to them. It took another two weeks to train him to respond to a physical laser, a common tool used by the military and law enforcement to direct some working dogs. It then took another week after that for him to make the transition from the physical laser to the augmented reality indicator.
The next step in the development process for the canine augmented reality headset is to miniaturize and ruggedize the system, as well as make it completely wireless, for rigorous field testing with special operations military working dogs, high-performing animals expected to quickly adapt to the new technology.
Solving 'fundamental challenges that operators have'
Handlers typically use physical and voice commands to give military working dogs basic directions and lasers to provide more specific guidance, such as identifying a specific target or object of interest.
The effectiveness of physical and voice commands is limited when the dog is off leash and operating away from the handler, and there are serious concerns about the use of a light source that could be visible to the enemy.
If a working dog had augmented reality goggles though, a handler could provide directions to the dog as it rounded a corner, went over a hill, or entered a building, and they could do so from a safe position without alerting the enemy to the team's presence or the dog's intended target.
Once this technology is operational, "a handler could sit a mile away in a bunker, completely safe, and they can send the dog out and send these very specific directional cues to the dog," Peper explained.
And, the dog would move and act with confidence even without the handler at their side.
"In terms of the system being of value and being more than just cool, it really does solve for some real fundamental challenges that operators have," Peper said.
That includes the need for a reliable animal-mounted camera.
Lee told Insider that once Peper's goggles are operational, "it'll be one of the best camera systems period, even without the augmented reality. We're seeing what the dog can see."
"When it's mounted on the back, you see where the dog's torso is pointed," he said, explaining that having a camera inside the goggles will "be a breakthrough in itself."
He said that in ten years of researching and working with military working dogs, he had never seen anything like Peper's canine augmented reality system, which has him "super excited."
Lee said he expects this innovative technology to lead to more interesting possibilities. "I think that what [Peper] is going to do is open up amazing new opportunities we don't even recognize yet."