You've lost your dog. You've been out all night, canvassing the neighbourhood, but there's still no sign of Fluffy.
If only you'd been able to use facial-recognition technology to upload a photo of the dog to a digital cloud before it disappeared.
Wait, there's an app? For that?
Philip Rooyakkers, co-founder of a Vancouver dog shop, has developed an application he hopes will make it easier for Canadian pet owners to reunite with the estimated one million animals that go missing in this country every year.
Move over tags, tattoos and microchips. Hello, iTunes.
"I was sitting having my lunch one day, with my Boston terrier in my office and his brother happened to also be in my office," Mr. Rooyakkers recalled in an interview. "Both are sitting there staring at me while I'm eating. I'm looking at them and it occurred to me that, 'Oh my gosh, their faces, even though they're brothers they have different patterns on their faces.' And I thought, 'Why don't we use facial recognition to [put together] a pet list?'"
That October, 2011 lunch started Mr. Rooyakkers on a two-year journey that, this past November, saw his team make its submission to Apple, for inclusion to the iTunes store.
PiP – for Positive Identification of Pets – became available for download earlier this month.
Mr. Rooyakkers knows all too well the worry that can come with losing a pet. His Yorkshire terrier once scampered out an open door, triggering a desperate search. The owner was fortunate enough to find the dog the next day, at a nearby shelter.
Mr. Rooyakkers also recalls a time when a couple brought its newly adopted dog to his Urban Puppy Shop, to register it for daycare.
The black Labrador retriever had been adopted from a shelter less than two days after it arrived.
Though the couple had the legal right to adopt the dog, Mr. Rooyakkers says he felt terribly for the family that had lost the animal, because it had clearly been kept in beautiful shape.
The PiP app is free to download. But people who want to register their dog or cat – a process that entails uploading photos of the animal, and inputting contact and identifying information – must pay $18.99 a year.
An Android app is expected in late February or early March.
Once an animal's photo is taken, the picture is uploaded to a digital server.
Then, if the animal goes missing and is found by someone else, that person can take a picture of the dog or cat and match it up with its owner.
When it's up and running, PiP will allow registered users to send an alert when their pet goes missing. The alert is immediately sent to other users, veterinarians and animal control and rescue agencies. It also appears on social media.
But will the facial-recognition technology actually work? Mr. Rooyakkers insists it does, and says animal faces are very identifiable. In fact, he says developing the technology to recognize the ins and outs of animal faces was a massive challenge.
"Human faces are very similar. Generally speaking, they're oval, we know where their eyes are, we know where their nose and mouth are. The differences lay in hair, and colour of skin, and so forth," he said. "When we're dealing with pets, we have a greater variety of differences in the sense of structure.
So you can have pets that have long noses, flat noses, you have a lot more hair patterns that can be in place, or colour variations on a pet's face."
Mr. Rooyakkers has applied for two patents – one involving process, the other involving algorithms. It can, however, take years for such applications to be approved.
He said he is aware of one other company that offers a similar service and app, but believes PiP's facial-recognition technology is stronger.
Marcie Moriarty, chief prevention and enforcement officer with the B.C. SPCA, said the app's concept is "fantastic" and could provide extra peace of mind for pet owners.
However, she said it's not the only step pet owners should take.
"Pet owners should first and foremost have some type of permanent ID on their animal, whether that's a tattoo, or a microchip. Of course, collars with tags [are also important.] Ideally, all three of these would be involved," she said.