Don’t let the dogs, or the people who rely on them, down

By Natalie Singer-Velush

Microsoft employees are developing ways to use voice and sensor technology to give service-dog owners more control over their and their dogs’ lives. Engineer Mike Powers spearheaded the project after being inspired by the service animal nonprofit he volunteers for, Summit Assistance Dogs, and realizing how robotics and other tech innovation could empower people with disabilities. Here, Powers talks with us about how the project came together, what it was like behind the scenes, and how others can pursue their own ideas.

What inspired you to pursue your idea?

There is a need for mobility-service-dog owners to be able to reward their dogs with treats while performing daily tasks. Many people with a mobility disabilities are challenged in the mechanics of treating as this requires some dexterity. At this time there is no solution available for them. I was inspired by a service dog owner who strapped a plastic bottle full of treats under the arm of his chair with rubber bands. He would hit the bottle and treats would fly out. I thought we could make something more precise and long-lasting.

What did you hope to achieve?

I’ve been trying to move the ball forward a little with every Hackathon, every chance I get. I was hoping to have a “working” prototype using open standard hardware and software that could be given to a service-dog owner so I could see how it stood up to daily use.

What kind of a team did it take to tackle this project?

We had two excellent employees and five brilliant and energetic interns help on this project. Each person brought their own unique skills, from 3D print design to electronics, coding, and communications to articulate what we built. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.

What advice do you have for others who have a cool idea or a passion for making change?

Don’t give up! I’ve been at this for about a year and a half and have been slowly picking away at it. One person can’t do these things by themselves, and I didn’t have all the expertise needed in all the various areas to pull it off. A number of times I thought about giving up, but I just don’t like doing that. Persistence pays. Sometimes just showing up is all it takes as you never know what’s around the corner.

Explore more employee projects at The Garage Wall of Fame.