The FIDO Lab at Georgia Tech researches novel methods of dog-computer interaction. Dogs in this lab have been trained to interact with vests and screens embedded with sensors to respond to emergencies (such as a diabetic seizure). A service dog could pull on a rope on their vest when their human fell, calling 911 and getting them critical aid. During Spring 2018, I pitched to the research faculty a project studying to what extant Gestalt Principles apply to dogs with the goal of improving our understanding of not just how dogs perceive the visual world, but what aspects of the world are more important to them. Over the course of the semester, I worked with another student to research similar perception studies, design and code a touchscreen task for a dog to complete, and worked with a trainer and dog to test our hypothesis.
Our first goal of the semester was to conduct a literature analysis. We needed to understand the background of the Gestalt principles in humans, any research into dog perception beyond just their color spectrum, and of course understand study design for animals (which is very different than humans!) We completed study training administered by the Georgia Tech Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). In our research we found that the area of Gestalt principles in animals was fairly new: this meant our research could lay the groundwork for future studies and more advanced understanding. One of the most important things we learned about for dog study design is that they are more sensitive to subconscious cues from their handlers (known as the "Clever Hans" phenomenon).
For our study, we chose to isolate the Gestalt principle of similarity. We set up two targets on a touchscreen that were the same size and shape, and varied their position. If our study dog favored color, then he would be able to discriminate when the circles changed position, and touch them in the correct order. If he favors shape, it will be more difficult for him to associate the command with the color. See the video below for the study in action.
While we did not have time to repeat the study with multiple dogs, the results for this dog in particular were fascinating. Sky (the dog) seemed to more naturally cue on position: he would always check where the blue dot was previously when we moved it around the screen. When 3 circles were arranged in a line, he would perform a swiping motion, despite being trained for distinct taps, indicating that he perhaps perceived the circles as a pattern (the common fate gestalt principle). Again, these results may be specific to Sky, and more testing would be required to understand how to generalize to dogs in general. If position was truly more important, the implication for designing for dogs is that keeping a particular action tied to a particular location will help the dog more easily train on that action, and of course more reliably perform it.
The full paper was submitted to the Animal Computer Interface conference and can be found at this link.