Orangutans enjoy interactive video games

Robyn Williams: The Science Show on RN. So what happens if you put an interactive system resembling a large iPad in an orangutan enclosure? Well, they've done it at the Melbourne Zoo with Microsoft Kinect and a touchscreen on the floor. Sally Sherwen and Dr Marcus Carter are with Matt Smith.

Marcus Carter: We heard that the zoo was using tablet computers as a form of enrichment with their orangutans. We were able to come in and we were able to see that technology in action, and that was really cool for us because we got to see that the orangutans are smart enough to know how to interact with a computer. One of the games that we saw was a musical keyboard, so they were tapping. But another one was painting, so they were sliding their finger across the interface. So we could see straight away that they understood how to interact. We can also see that they couldn't interact with it the way that they wanted to which is to roll over it, to jump on it, to kiss it. The zoo keeper has to hold the tablets just at fingertips reach. So they can interact with it but they can't grab it because these guys are nine times stronger than an average human, so you're not giving them a tablet and getting it back in one piece.

So we proposed that we could use the technology that we've been working with, which is the Microsoft Kinect sensor, to design something that was a bit more bodily, more suited towards orangutans and what they like to do. So that's when we began working with Sally.

Sally Sherwen: Yes, so we recognised the limitations of them using these tablets. Another big factor associated with the iPad use is that they could only do it when the keepers were free to hold it up for them, so we wanted to give them something where they could just use it whenever they wanted, so they had choice and control over this type of enrichment.

Matt Smith: How important is it to give orangutans plenty of things to keep them amused in this kind of environment?

Sally Sherwen: Orangutans are highly intelligent, and they are one of the species that have highly evolved cognitive abilities as well. So we are really good in zoos at giving them lots of enrichment and things to do. What we are always looking for is getting them to use their brains as well, so that problem solving. Just like humans enjoy sitting down doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle, it's important for us to give orangutans that opportunity as well as all the other physical activities and that they are provided with in their enclosure. So the more the better and also the more variation the better for these guys.

Marcus Carter: It's one of the great things about the digital technology system that we've designed, is that we can feasibly make it so it's different every time, which creates a constantly new and unique challenge for the orangutans, which replicates what they have to deal with in the wild. With a digital system we are able to create something that can adapt to the skills of the particular orangutan that is using it, be novel, and is more robust, because the technology is outside the enclosure.

Matt Smith: So can you explain to me what the technology is and how it's working?

Marcus Carter: We project using just a typical off-the-shelf projector a screen onto the floor of the orangutan enclosure, and then we use the Microsoft Kinect, which is the same sensor that you get with an Xbox One console, to detect touches on that projection on the floor. So the Kinect is a depth sensor, so it creates a kind of 3-D model of the area in front of it, and then we are able to distinguish between an orangutan just sitting on the surface versus an orangutan stretching its arm out and touching something that it wants to interact with. So that effectively makes a touchscreen on the floor of the orangutan enclosure that they can't break. All of the technology is outside the enclosure, so it's perfectly safe. So that creates what we refer to as an intelligent projection.

Matt Smith: So what sort of games are you developing?

Marcus Carter: Putting something new in an orangutan enclosure who has never used anything like this at all, you can't sit down and explain what this is, you have to create something that draws their attention over. So they actually already use projections as a form of enrichment, so sometimes they project movies into the orangutan enclosure. I'm told Shrek is a family favourite for these guys.

So the first application that they got is a red dot that is projected on the floor and it moves around, but if the orangutan touches it, it explodes. The orangutans already do a form of enrichment where they had to go and touch a red dot that's painted on the wall and then come back and they get a reward. If you touch a red dot, something can happen. So the first time we turned it on, we've got one red dot on the floor and Malu is led into the area, and he just walked straight up to this new thing in his enclosure, they are inquisitive, creative, they love to explore, and he kisses it and it explodes around him. And then he does a handstand, just to watch the light go around. He stood on the platform and then just spun around trying to hit the dots as quickly as possible to create more explosions and light.

The next version that we gave him we added more dots of different colours to try and see if, well, does he like more explosions, more light? Is it the ability to affect that environment? He and Dewi, the youngest here, both responded to that really positively. So what we've been trying to do is start with something basic, see what they enjoy about it and then build on that and explore what different kinds of interactive projections they are drawn to.

Matt Smith: So has any of the behaviour and the reactions that the orangutans have had been surprising to you or interesting?

Sally Sherwen: When we gave it to them we just wanted to look at if they use it and then how they interact with it. So the fact that some were using their hands palm up, palm down, their face, their feet, or using different items from throughout the exhibit to interact with it, all of that was interesting. And I suppose we weren't expecting that so much to have a huge variation in how they interact with it.

So Marcus had an idea after talking with someone who works in a similar area who found that the orangutans liked to watch videos or sit and look at photos of their favourite people doing things that they like. And so we thought we'd try and test that and use that as part of our photo game. So we had various photos and video clips of their keepers that they have a really strong relationship with doing some funny, strange things. We found it very entertaining and we think that these guys did too, but all of that will be part of phase 2 of the behavioural study.

Marcus Carter: The idea with that application is to give them more control and choice over what photos they look at. So the zookeepers here were already showing them photos sometimes, maybe just even on their own personal iPhone. We know that that was something that they enjoy looking at. Kiani, she really likes looking at photos of herself but no one has really given an orangutan control over what photos or videos they get to look at, so we created a gallery that had photos and videos of their zookeepers but at the same time photos and videos of other stuff, dogs. I put a video of my dog in there, cats, a couple of other animals from the zoo, orangutans from other places, pictures of food, and projected that on the floor, kind of like an Instagram gallery, and if they touched the photo it became large and they could interact with it. The only thing I think that they are actually interacted with were the photos and videos of their zookeepers, which was very cute.

Matt Smith: So how did the visitors react to this kind of thing? Did they enjoy seeing it? Were they surprised by the orangutans' intelligence?

Marcus Carter: During the trials in February we were interviewing visitors that came through, asking them how much they knew about the orangutans before they came in. Then they would see the technology and we would get feedback on what they thought. The number one response that we got was most didn't realise that they were this intelligent. Technology like this seems to connect people with the orangutans in a way that non-digital doesn't. People really realise how much like us they are and how much more we should be doing to protect them in the wild.

Matt Smith: So what's phase 2 then?

Sally Sherwen: So phase 2 is all about animal behaviour. So what we did in phase 1 is presented the animals with this new type of enrichment they'd never seen before. We were analysing if they use it and how they use it, just in a very broad sense. So now what we're going to do is analyse how access to that kind of enrichment affects overall how they spend their days. So it's a behavioural study on the orangutans over a full day period, and we will compare days when they have access to it and days when they don't and see how that can change their activity budgets and how they spend their time as well.

Matt Smith: Is there potential to extend it to, say, something like 'if you do this action it will change the temperature', 'if you do this action it will turn a light on and off'?

Sally Sherwen: Yes, definitely. Again, we are very early days with this kind of work, and the idea is that if these guys master this as a form of enrichment they can also master it as a way to have more control over their physical environment and that can include things like temperature, lighting, switching different bits and pieces in their environment on or off. And so that element of control over their environment is a really important factor for animal welfare. And so if we can use technology to give them more options for that, we are going to see some really positive outcomes.

Marcus Carter: When I'm not at the zoo I'm an interface designer, so I'm trying to design intuitive and natural ways for people to interact with computers. This is a whole different ball game. It's a challenge but it's a really interesting one that makes us reassess how we go about designing interfaces. So one of the things that we've learnt straightaway is we think of touch as something that is incredibly intuitive, but Dewi, who has just swung over, she is five and she was the one who took to it the most. She is really inquisitive, really playful. You see there the way she is kind of playing with objects. One of the first things she does is she tries to find an object to interact with the system. So that maybe tells us that we could design a better and more intuitive interface for the orangutans that is based on objects as opposed to touch. And the more we learn about how they reason and use digital interfaces, the more likely it is we can design the ability for them to control their environment and their circumstances and more parts of their lives, which I'm told would be beneficial for their welfare.

Matt Smith: Does she recognise you guys or does she want my recorder?

Marcus Carter: We might not be quite that special but I think technology is.

Sally Sherwen: She could be looking at this fluffy thing on your microphone.

Robyn Williams: And I think Sally is right. Sally Sherwen is Melbourne Zoo's animal welfare specialist. Dr Marcus Carter is from the University of Melbourne's Microsoft Research Centre, and they were with Matt Smith.


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