Developing new technologies which benefit mobility assistance dogs and people with disabilities in the UK
Dr Mancini’s and her colleagues’ pioneering research in Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) has led to the design of novel animal-centred interactive technologies and has had a significant impact by benefitting mobility assistance dogs and the people they assist in the UK and by enhancing public understanding of Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI). Their research has given mobility assistance dog charities new tools with which to efficiently train dogs and has made the premises of public-facing businesses more accessible. Together, this work has enhanced the wellbeing of dogs and people by facilitating daily tasks and strengthening the human-dog bond.
In the UK alone, more than 7,000 people with disabilities rely on mobility assistance dogs, who perform daily tasks such as opening doors and operating appliances on their behalf. The animals’ companionship helps these people manage their activities and energy, and overcome powerlessness, isolation, discrimination and poverty.
In 2011, Dr Clara Mancini founded the Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) Lab at The Open University and, starting with the publication of her ACI Manifesto the same year [O1], she has pioneered the emerging discipline of ACI, through a comprehensive programme to:
- study the interaction between animals and technology,
- design technology to support animals’ welfare, activities and human-animal relations,
- Promoted citizen engagement with political election debates in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 UK General Elections;
- and develop animal-centred methods to enables them to co-design technologies.
In 2013, Mancini started a collaboration between the ACI Lab and Dogs for Good (DfG). The UK Charity is a leading provider of mobility assistance dogs across the country. Mancini worked with dogs and canine experts to design and evaluate controls which mobility assistance dogs can use themselves to open doors and operate appliances. In a 2016 publication resulting from this collaboration, Mancini and colleagues demonstrated the fact that despite their fundamental social role, these mobility assistance dogs have to work in environments inconsistent with their characteristics, which hinder their performance and impinge on their welfare [O2]. This research highlighted how these dogs require prolonged training that 50 per cent fail to complete and how their working conditions necessitate their early retirement. This results in significant financial losses for the charities who train the dogs and leaves people with disabilities often having to wait between two and four years for a companion. This paper also demonstrated how the controls designed at the ACI Lab were significantly more straightforward for dogs to learn and use compared to standard interfaces such as light switches, and identified new interaction design principles for canine accessibility.
In an article the same year, Mancini argued for a move beyond existing human-centred regulations and guidelines which may harm working animals, towards an animal-centred framework that can better support the development of ACI as a discipline [O3]. This research recognised animal welfare as a fundamental requirement to enable mobility assistance dogs to assist people with disabilities, and articulated the implications of a welfare-centred ethics framework. It also defined the criteria for obtaining animals׳ mediated and contingent consent to engage with research, and argued for the methodological necessity, as well as the ethical desirability, of such an animal-centred framework.
In 2018, with Ruge, Cox, Mancini and Luck developed an award-winning method to evaluate the dogs’ user experience while interacting with controls, based on tail-wagging behaviour [O4]. The research highlighted improvements in the dogs’ response to the controls consistent with improved usability. In a subsequent paper, using a multispecies participatory design framework, Mancini and Lehtonen demonstrated that even dogs with no specialist training could learn to operate the controls within a few days [O5].
In a 2019 article, Ruge and Mancini systematically evaluated dog-centred controls designed at the ACI Lab to be used in domestic environments to operate appliances, such as lamps and kettles. The research also proposed a new method to systematically assess the controls’ canine usability [O6]. Finally, it demonstrated that these tools could reduce the time the dogs take to complete a task by 50 per cent, improving their success rate by 20 per cent, even when compared with the most accessible standard controls [O6].
Developing new technologies which benefit mobility assistance dogs and people with disabilities
Mancini and colleagues at the ACI Lab installed their prototype canine-controls [O4, O5] in the Horlock Building at the Open University Campus in Milton Keynes to enable access for student a and her mobility assistance dog, which significantly improved her and her dog’s daily experience of their workspace.
In January 2019, DfG installed controls developed through the project [O2-O5] at their canine training facility in Banbury. The charity has since trained their dogs to use the tools, which are also used to allow dogs and clients to access the premises easily. Since 2019, the ACI Lab has also deployed the latest generation of wireless controls [O6] in the homes of various DfG clients since. Feedback from these clients indicates that the controls improved the dogs’ abilities to complete tasks and increased their confidence. Clients also commented on how using the controls reinforced the bond between them and their dog by giving the pair something new and fun to do together. They additionally expressed their wish to see similar devices installed in public spaces.
Consistent with this wish, in September 2020, Robotazia, a newly opened restaurant in Milton Keynes, was the first public-facing business in the UK to install the wired controls to enable customers’ assistance dogs to access the restaurant’s toilets. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic significantly affected the restaurant’s normal operations, but as soon as the hospitality sector is able to reopen to the public, customers with mobility assistance dogs will be welcomed in a more accessible environment.
Enhancing public understanding of Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI)
A 2013 video which marked the launch of the ACI Lab and DfG’s collaboration and which explained Mancini’s research [O1] has received some 12,000 views on YouTube.
In June 2014, the research project was one of 22 nationally selected for the prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, which showcases the best of UK research to the public. More than 14,000 people visited the week-long London exhibition. The Royal Society also profiled Mancini and colleagues’ Technology for Dogs with Important Jobs exhibit and research [O1-O3] on its podcast. Mancini’s video explaining her research [O1-O3] on the event’s website attracted more than 1,600 views, while DfG’s companion video testimonial attracted 2,805 viewings. In a 2020 testimonial, visitor Patrizia Paci explained how the experience changed her life, by motivating her to change career and pursue a PhD with the ACI Lab. After completing her PhD with The Open University in 2019, Patrizia is now a full-time postdoctoral researcher at the Lab.
In August 2019, the Edinburgh International Science Festival invited Mancini and the ACI Lab to exhibit its research and work with DfG [O1-O6]. During three weeks in August, more than 18,000 people visited the festival. The Technology for Dogs with Important Jobs exhibit attracted significant interest from both public and media. A post about the ACI Lab’s exhibit on the science festival’s Facebook page reached more than 8,000 people and generated 805 engagements. BBC Scotland’s Reporting Scotland also profiled the exhibit during its broadcast on 9 April 2019.
Since 2015, the ACI Lab project’s research [O1-O6] has also attracted more than £80,000 in personal donations from 300 private individuals who have each gifted between £10 and £5,000 to fund the development of new technologies for working dogs, including mobility assistance dogs. Many of these gifts have been accompanied by personal letters expressing donators’ appreciation for the projects’ “life-changing work”.
O1. Mancini, C. (2011). Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): a manifesto. Interactions, 18(4) pp. 69–73. http://oro.open.ac.uk/28857/.
O2. Mancini, C., Li, S., O’Connor, G., Valencia, J., Edwards, D. and McCain, H. (2016). Towards Multispecies Interaction Environments: Extending Accessibility to Canine Users. In: ACI ’16: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction, ACM, article no. 8. http://oro.open.ac.uk/48569/.
O3. Mancini, C. (2016). Towards an Animal-Centred Ethics for Animal-Computer Interaction. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, IJHCS, Vol. 98, Feb 2017, pp. 221-233. http://oro.open.ac.uk/46164/.
O4. Ruge, L., Cox, E., Mancini, C. and Luck, R. (2018). User Centered Design Approaches to Measuring Canine Behavior: Tail Wagging as a Measure of User Experience. In: ACI2018 Conference Proceedings, ACM Digital Library. Best Paper. http://oro.open.ac.uk/57936/. Best Paper Award Nomination.
O5. Mancini, C. and Lehtonen, J. (2018). The Emerging Nature of Participation in Multispecies Interaction Design. In: Proceedings of International Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, 9-13 Jun 2018, Hong Kong, China, ACM. Honourable Mention. http://oro.open.ac.uk/54539/
O6. Ruge, L. and Mancini, C. (2019). A Method for Evaluating Animal Usability (MEAU). Proceedings of Sixth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction, ACI2019, in co-operation with ACM, ACM Digital Library. http://oro.open.ac.uk/68269/.