‘Kinect’ at the zoo could let orangutans play games with visitors

"If we design an interface they understand, they could use it to communicate things about their welfare," says Marcus Carter. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers are testing a new technology similar to Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox One that allows orangutans in the Melbourne Zoo to use their bodies to control challenging games and applications.

If the trial is successful, within a few years the orangutans could be playing computer games with zoo visitors.

Zoos around the world, including Melbourne, have for some years been using computer tablets to enrich activities for primates. But while Melbourne’s six orangutans clearly love playing with and watching the tablets, there are serious limitations. The animals tend to smash the devices if they hold them, which means a zookeeper has to hold onto the tablet from behind protective mesh.

“We want to see if we can devise experiences that are inherently engaging to them.”

Zoo Atlanta in Georgia installed a touch screen into a tree-like structure inside the enclosure. But Sally Sherwen, an animal welfare specialist at Zoos Victoria, wanted to go beyond that and give the orangutans the opportunity to engage with the technology the way they want to—make it a richer experience by allowing more full body movements and also to interact directly with visitors.

She says previous research at the zoo has shown the orangutans themselves are keen to engage. When given the opportunity to be behind a curtained off part of the enclosure or in clear view, the orangutans much preferred being in clear view.

“They enjoyed using the tablet, but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to,” Sherwen says.

Fun and safe

The goal was to ensure there was nothing the orangutans could break or use to hurt themselves.

“By having all the technology on the outside and using these emerging technologies that allow for touch detections on projected surfaces, we are able to circumvent the safety issue,” says Marcus Carter, a researcher at the University of Melbourne.

Such safety issues aren’t to be underestimated. Orangutans are three times stronger than humans while sharing 97 percent of our DNA. A key challenge has been projecting successfully through the three panels of bulletproof glass protecting the enclosure. But the team can now project a full body-sized screen that allows the orangutans to “bodily engage” with the projection, whether it be rolling, using it on their bodies, or bringing over physical objects like leaves and bits of tarpaulin.

Games based on personalities

The team has developed an initial shape-recognition game dubbed Zap that builds off a game the zoo keepers created in which the orangutans are trained to identify a red dot on a wall to secure a treat. But in the computer game, the shape will explode with light when both the orangutan and the human player touch the shapes at the same time. The idea is to encourage collaborative play.

The team is designing more complex games, but designing for animals presents a unique challenge.

orangutan interacts with game system
Malu uses his body, not just his hands, to interact with the interface. (Credit: Zoos Victoria)

“As interactive game designers we use what we call participatory design. We work with the people who use the products and they provide input and feedback for prototypes,” says PhD candidate Sarah Webber, who is working with Carter. “You can’t have those conversations with animals, so we have to find new ways to include them as participants in the design process.”

The researchers are now working with the zookeepers to tap into the different personalities of the zoo’s orangutans. For example, females Gabby and Kiani appear to be fascinated with handbags and what people pull out of them, while male Santan is intrigued by men with ginger beards.

Malu, also a male, likes extracting nuts and bolts from places he shouldn’t. Indeed, Malu’s penchant for taking things apart–he managed to escape the enclosure for a short time last year–has made his keepers train him to hand over whatever bolts and nuts he extracts in return for a reward.

“These individual differences are things we can use as inspiration to design something that is complex and motivates them to solve puzzles,” Webber says. “We know apes can successfully use touch screens, but they are very task orientated, so we want to see if we can devise experiences that are inherently engaging to them.”

Instagram for orangutans

One application is being aimed especially at Kiani, who loves to look at pictures of herself. Dubbed “Orangstagram”, the app allows the orangutans to take pictures of themselves and display them. They would also be able to go through a picture library and choose what they want to look at.

Such an activity could prove to be much more than a game. It opens up the possibility of animal psychologists “reading” the emotional health of orangutans by analyzing what pictures they select.

“If we design an interface they understand, they could use it to communicate things about their welfare,” Carter says.

Such an interface could also eventually become a shared projection space extending inside and outside the enclosure, creating a host of potential new opportunities for interaction between the orangutans and zoo visitors. This could allow orangutans the opportunity to play collaboratively with visitors, who can remain safely outside the enclosure. It would completely change the way animals and visitors interact at the zoo.

Source: Andrew Trounson for the University of Melbourne