Ruff Language


Q: I’ve been getting all these spams about a gizmo that ostensibly translates your dog’s yaps into the queen’s English. Sounds like an amusing toy, except the $100 price tag seems a bit much for a glorified Magic 8 Ball. Is there any scientific merit to this thing?

The genius of the so-called Bow-Lingual, of course, is that it’s impossible to verify the results—it’s not like anyone can set up a double-blind experiment, since nobody save the fictional star of BeastMaster knows what our canine pals are trying to convey. That said, Bow-Lingual’s Japanese creator, Takara Corp., has done its best to make the gadget appear state-of-the-art. After some not so extensive testing, Mr. Roboto’s conclusion is that the translator’s basically a con job, but an exceedingly entertaining one.

The Bow-Lingual’s a two-piece set—a wireless microphone that attaches to your dog’s collar, and a walkie-talkie-looking handset with an LCD screen. Barks and yelps are transmitted to the handset, where their voiceprint is analyzed and placed into one of six emotional categories: happy, sad, on guard, frustrated, needy, or assertive. Once the appropriate emotional state is determined, the Bow-Lingual randomly selects a phrase belonging to that category and displays it on the screen. So if your pooch is determined to be on guard, maybe you’ll get “Are you my friend or my enemy?” If aggressive, perhaps the sentiment will be “I’m dominant.” You get the drift.

Takara’s got this whole spiel going about how Dr. Matsumi Suzuki of the Japan Acoustic Laboratory made the link between certain voiceprints and certain emotions, which led to the invention of the Animal Emotion Analysis System (AEAS). “For instance,” a Bow-Lingual brochure reads, “sad barks always exhibited a strong component in the 5,000 Hz range, but no harmonic component less than 3,000 Hz.” Alas, there’s no real explanation as to how Dr. Suzuki knew these dogs were sad. Maybe he took his measurements right after refusing to throw the Frisbee again. Maybe he had a Smog record playing in the background. Your guess is as good as Mr. Roboto’s.

The mere existence of the Bow-Lingual has stirred many an American columnist to write a pun-filled “This Is the End of Civilization” handwringer; one Ohio op-ed page called it “the worst invention to come out of Japan since karaoke.” While reading the diatribes, however, it dawned on Mr. Roboto that few, if any, of the critics had actually tested out the translator. Responsible android that he is, Mr. Roboto decided to change all that by laying his titanium paws on a unit, and using it to commune with Aloha, a vizsla-pit bull-German shepherd-whatever mix.

Problem number one was that Bow-Lingual asks you to enter the dog’s breed, as it’s primed to differentiate between the barks of Irish setters and Shiba Inus. But if you’ve got a mutt like Aloha, all you can do is enter the dog’s size and snout geometry and the translator will do its best.

Aloha’s a little aggressive, and started this whole growling deal as soon as Mr. Roboto wheeled into the room. First phrase to pop up: “These are my rules.” Hmmm, makes sense—way to lay down the law, mein hund. A biscuit was proffered, to which Aloha responded: “What should I do?” Um, OK.

Then things got weird. Petting commenced, and any observer could see that Aloha was digging it—splaying out on his back and just begging for a belly stroke. But what does Bow-Lingual say? “Can’t you hear me?” Dude, you lost Mr. Roboto entirely on that one.

The final judgment is that Bow-Lingual’s a lot like a horoscope—it’s bound to be right just enough to keep you believing, engaged, and looking forward to more. Like many a Japanese electronic doodad (e.g., Tamagotchi), it’s strangely compelling, and a surefire conversation starter. Of course, after playing around with a Bow-Lingual, Mr. Roboto couldn’t help but recall an old routine by comedienne Elayne Boosler, who once speculated on what dogs might say should they suddenly be blessed with the gift of gab. “Throw the ball! Throw the ball!”

And after they tired of that line of discourse? “Throw it again! Throw it again!” Big up to the Takara folks for taking a more complex view of the canine thought process.

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