Review: Voyce is the wellness monitor for dogs that makes wearables vividly relevant

Even if you retired your Fitbit or Fuelband to a desk drawer long ago, you may still find room in your heart for another activity-tracking wearable. No, not for you—for your dog. The Voyce health and wellness monitor bypasses human biology entirely, and sets its sights on canis familiaris, a species with much less capricious technology habits.

Yeah, it’s another canine wearable. But instead of merely recording pawsteps, the Voyce band also tracks resting heart and respiratory rates, two biometrics that can provide deep insights into a dog’s health. My border collie mix, Whiskey, has been wearing Voyce for just over a month, and I’ve gathered a wealth of interesting data about just how much activity and sleep she’s really getting—along with reports on her vital signs that would otherwise require specialized veterinary equipment.

Voyce just dropped its price from $300 to $200, but requires a pricey $15 monthly or $150 yearly membership plan. It’s also limited to dogs with 12-inch necks or larger. It’s also got an annoying, ever-blinking LED, and looks like cold, sterile medical equipment. And the Voyce data dashboard is web-only, and loads rather slowly.

voyce collar scuffed

The Voyce collar quickly picks up scuffs, making an already industrial-looking band look a bit more janky.

The manufacturer, i4C Innovations, says it’s working on fixing some of these issues, but even the 1.0 version of Voyce is super-cool technology. The collar tracks Whiskey’s heart rate and breathing when she’s at home, kicking back on the couch—cool, calm and perfectly content. And this is the big innovation that should be of particular interest to veterinarians.

A month’s worth of doggie data

The collar was originally slated to be available by summer 2014, but Voyce hit a snag with FCC approval. The device’s special patented technology is a sensor that uses low-frequency radio waves to measure heart rate (tracking pulses of the carotid artery) and breathing rate (tracking muscle movement in doggie’s chest). The FCC finally landed on a protocol for testing and certifying this application for dogs, and now the Voyce band is shipping.

Every day for the last month, I’ve been checking Whiskey’s heart rate and respiratory data, and her readings have been blissfully normal. I haven’t seen any alarming heart rate spikes, and her breathing rates have varied between a relaxed 11 and 16 breaths per minute. The Voyce band takes these two readings when your dog is at full rest, and then reports a three-day rolling average.

whiskey breathing rate

Here’s a month of Whiskey’s respiratory data. It would be nice if Voyce added days of the week to its calendar view.

This rolling-average approach smooths out the natural variability of canine heartbeat and breathing rates, presenting only baseline measurements that can show trends over time. But here’s the really important thing, according to Voyce: Because the measurements are collected when your dog is perfectly calm, the readings will be much more instructive than anything measured during the cortisol-driven emotional duress of a veterinary visit.

To this end, the Voyce platform include a “vet view” that gathers up all relevant data, and exports it to PDF. You can then send the file to your pet doctor to provide him or her with a deeper level of diagnostic insights. Voyce says its technology is greater than 90 percent accurate when compared to a holter monitor or Televet. These unwieldy veterinary devices measure a dog’s heart rate at rest, but just aren’t practical for continuous, everyday use.

What trend data can really tell us

If you check your dog’s Voyce data regularly, you may even be able to spot a developing medical problem. To this end, Voyce gives your dog a new voice in her own health and wellness effort.

For example, elevated heart rates can be an indication of pain, fever or infection. Elevated respiratory rates might suggest a heart problem or an issue with your dog’s endocrine system. The Voyce platform also reports your dog’s longest periods of uninterrupted rest. So, if you notice these periods are getting shorter over time, your dog may be suffering from arthritis, hypothyroidism or even cancer pain.

voyce uninterrupted rest

Progressively shorter periods of uninterrupted rest might indicate your dog is in pain.

If you see sudden spikes or gradual upward swings in either metric, you shouldn’t panic, but rather take the data to a vet who can triangulate heart and breathing rates with rest and activity data. Amanda Landis-Hanna, i4C’s Director of Veterinary Medicine, describes a scenario: “If I see that resting respiratory rate jump from, say, 12 to 25, I know there’s something that I need to have a conversation about. If the resting heart rate normally hangs out around 60, and suddenly jumps up to 100, 110, 120—all of which are very elevated in a resting patient, but normal in a stressed-out patient in my hospital—that’s important information.”

whiskey voyce vertical

Whiskey never demonstrated any discomfort wearing Voyce, but it looks a bit like a shock collar or a GPS tracker for parolees.

The Voyce team is sensitive to turning pet parents into hypochondriacs, so the platform includes a library of professionally sourced articles on health, behavior and nutrition, among other topics. There’s also a symptom checker tool to help users identify specific problems.

“What we’ve found with the pet parents who are using Voyce is not that they’re trying to diagnose their own dog, but that they feel much more in tune,” says Landis-Hanna, who’s been a practicing vet for 13 years. “They’re tracking trends, they’re reading the articles and better educating themselves, so that when they go into the vet office, they feel they’re speaking the same language. And a better educated client is generally more compliant, meaning if I can explain the benefit of blood work or X-rays, the pet parent will do those if they’re able to, getting us closer to the diagnosis.”

Deep dives into activity and sleep

Throughout my testing, I sifted through Whiskey’s data with interest, observing how much exercise she was getting at doggie daycare on weekdays versus time spent at dog parks on the weekends. The Voyce dashboard’s activity data shows periods of low, medium, and high intensity levels, as well as estimates of miles covered, all based on accelerometer readings. It doesn’t, however, show actual pawsteps. In other words, it’s not Fitbit for dogs.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to observe that Whiskey’s activity during really busy daycare visits exceeded her activity when I only gave her two 35-minute walks on a really lazy Sunday.

whiskey voyce hourly breakdown

On the day we shot Whiskey’s Voyce video, she got 50 percent more than her normal daily activity. Here we see an hourly breakdown.

The dashboard doesn’t report sleep like a human activity tracker would. Instead it reports rest, which combines actual sleep with simple sedentary activity like kicking back on the couch and waiting for the fun to begin. I was surprised to discover that Whiskey’s average daily rest count is 21 hours a day. That exceeds the estimated 80 percent of combined sleep/rest time that’s taken root as conventional wisdom, but Dr. Landis-Hanna confirmed that Voyce is showing most dogs aren’t quite as active as experts have always believed.

For what it’s worth, I’m not worried that Whiskey is under-exercised. Looking at my Voyce dashboard, I can identify her most active days and correlate her numbers to night-time behavior. On the days when Whiskey has even approached 20 percent activity time, she’s been absolutely wiped out at night, suggesting she’s passed her limit.

voyce intensity level graph

This graph charts the intensity levels of Whiskey’s activity on the day we shot her video. Clearly, the Voyce team likes its charts and graphs.

The dashboard also shows an estimate of calorie burn (helpful if you’ve identified a weight gain problem), and reports how many hours your dog has spent in direct sunlight. This last metric can prove especially useful if you’re concerned your dog walker isn’t doing his or her job.

Depending on the data set you’re looking at, the dashboard can show you daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly views. So, for example, when you’re in the daily view, you can check to see the precise times when your dog was active and enjoying sunlight. The monthly view is available for all data sets, and is most helpful for spotting health trends. That said, I wish the dashboard mapped calendar dates to days of the week. This would make it much easier to compare weekday activity to the same metrics on the weekends.

A portal for all your dog’s details

The Voyce dashboard is packed with features. In addition to tons of interesting articles (e.g., “Can my dog handle group walks?” and “How to train a rock solid recall”), there’s a goal-setting tool (e.g., lose 5 pounds over three months) as well as a function for setting reminders for vaccines, appointments and routine care. You can also log all of your dog’s health and nutrition details, such as which shots are up to date, what she’s allergic to, and exactly what kind of food she eats.

Your subscription fees cover all these features, and also pay for storing your dog’s data on the Voyce servers. It’s a robust platform, but it’s worth noting that all popular human wellness wearables come with free monthly cloud service. As for the dashboard itself, it’s easy to navigate on a desktop display, but it loads too slowly. I often found myself impatiently waiting for Voyce’s servers to update Whiskey’s charts.

voyce articles

Among other services, your subscription fee pays for a growing collection of articles written by vets, behaviorists, nutrionists and other experts.

Another gripe: There’s no mobile app. Instead, the website employs a “responsive” design that automatically adjusts the user interface for smaller devices like tablets and smartphones. It sounds good in theory, but the render on smartphones is cramped and non-intuitive. I also found the phone experience amplifies already annoyingly slow load times. On the upside, Voyce says it’s working on a mobile app that will enable push notifications and other niceties we’ve come to expect from activity tracking apps.

Not the wearable for dainty dogs

As for the collar itself, well, let’s just say it’s not ready for Project Runway. I want Whiskey’s coat to look lush and healthy, but I’m not interested in doggie fashion, so Voyce’s cold, institutional aesthetic doesn’t bother me (and I know it doesn’t bother Whiskey). Still, its general look and feel evokes a shock collar—or possibly even a GPS monitor that you might see on a criminal under house arrest. It’s not a glamorous look, and that might be a deal-breaker if you named your dog Princess or Buttercup.

Battery life is rated for seven days, and I found this estimate to be accurate. The collar is waterproof down to one meter, so feel free to enter DockDog competitions. Data syncs with Voyce’s servers over Wi-Fi every four hours or on-demand via a button press. You can add up to 10 Wi-Fi networks, allowing you to sync pretty much everywhere your dog regularly visits.

voyce collar fastner

The collar locks on to your dog’s neck with a burly, clacking fastener. It’s not pretty, and the Voyce band doesn’t currently support toy breeds.

The Voyce collar currently comes in four sizes, supporting necks as scrawny as 12 inches and as burly as 32 inches. That’s a wide range, but if you intend to buy Voyce for a toy breed, you’ll have to wait for i4C Innovations to miniaturize the collar further. The company is targeting the Q4 2015/Q1 2016 time frame for that next step.

Ideally, the Voyce sensor is supposed to settle at the 6 o’clock position below a dog’s neck. Whiskey’s collar always seems to be pushed off to one side, but I’ve never seen any evidence of uncollected data. The Voyce team says as long as the sensor housing is sitting between 3 and 9 o’clock, data collection should be fine.

As you can see from the photos in this article, the plastic collar picks up scuffs and dirt. Like the basic aesthetics, this doesn’t bother me. However, I am bothered by the collar’s bright, blinking green LED, which serves as a visual indicator to confirm the band is working. When Whiskey enters the bedroom in the middle of the night, the LED lights up the whole room—and that negatively affects my health and wellness.

whiskey voyce led Jon Phillips

Imagine this bright LED entering your room in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping.

Whiskey doesn’t show any indication that she’s annoyed by the LED or even wearing the collar in the first place, but clearly i4C knows the LED is a friction point for humans. The current LED has an auto-dimming feature for low-light situations, and the company says this will improve even further when Voyce moves to a new LED.

Can you put a price on a family member’s health?

With new pricing in June, i4C Innovations is dropping the cost of its Voyce hardware to $200, but is increasing the price of its mandatory membership plans by 50 percent. Granted, $150 a year is a low recurring cost for a platform with such promising health benefits. Because have you seen a vet bill lately? Still, I have to once again point out that Fitbit, Jawbone, Withings and other human activity tracker companies don’t charge membership fees.

The collar isn’t pretty, but that isn’t a deal-breaker. The platform doesn’t have a mobile app, but one is coming. The band won’t fit toy breeds, but a smaller version is on the way. And the blinking green LED is distracting, but i4C is working on a fix.

In sum total: Voyce suffers a number of version 1 problems, but the most serious ones are being addressed. “Casual” pet parents will bristle at the idea of paying membership fees, but “casual” pet parents probably shouldn’t care for pets in the first place. Would I buy Voyce if total cost of ownership added up to $1000 a year? Probably not. Instead I would lean on my vet to spot trouble signs. But $350 a year isn’t an exorbitant price for all the interesting insights and diagnostic data that Voyce provides.

This story, "Review: Voyce is the wellness monitor for dogs that makes wearables vividly relevant" was originally published by PCWorld.

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