Melbourne Zoo's Orang-utans get access to Kinect-powered apps and games

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Melbourne Zoo's Orang-utans get access to Kinect-powered apps and games

As the great apes adapt to their new toys, we chat to one of the project's masterminds, Dr Marcus Carter of the University of Melbourne.

Melbourne Zoo and its population of Orang-utans has started a new, world-leading research project - based around interactive projections and Microsoft Kinect controllers.

The aim of the project is to see who the great apes learn and interact. The Kinect interface lets them control digital projections, choosing themselves from a variety of applications and games. 

The project is a collaboration between Melbourne Zoo and the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne. We got a chance to have a chat today with the Research Center's Dr Marcus Carter about the project, and what he hopes to achieve.

How are the orang-utans reacting to the project so far? Are they getting the hang of it?

So far we have only had one day of the pilot project and will be doing further research throughout the month of February. We are really excited to learn how the orang-utans would take to the projected interface, which is entirely new to them. The great news is that at the first testing Malu, Melbourne Zoo’s twelve-year-old orang-utan, not only was curious about the new interface but worked out how to interact straight away. The reason why we are using the Microsoft Kinect in this project is that we wanted to create an interface that allowed them to interact the way they want to. So while we anticipated they would use their hands, the first thing Malu did was kiss the projection! Then he decided to hang from the ceiling interact with the projection with a piece of blanket, which is leaps and bounds better than what he was able to do before when they used tablet computers for enrichment. The Kinect allows us to support these full-body interactions.

Now he’s understood that this new thing in his enclosure is interactive, we’re going in again this week with a slightly more complex application to see if he’ll be able to solve the puzzle. We’re not providing food rewards for playing with the game, and he has total control over whether or not he decides to interact, so it’s going to be interesting to learn what sustains his interest. It’s a great challenge to us as designers.

What makes orang-utans most suitable for this kind of research?

Orang-utans are incredibly intelligent, and really curious. We knew they would be comfortable with something new in their enclosure (they have total control over whether or not to interact with the intelligent projection), and Melbourne Zoo was already using tablet computers and projecting movies for them to watch. However, neither of these forms of enrichment gave the orang-utans the opportunity to interact the way they wanted to. So it was a clear opportunity for us to come in and design something new and begin understanding how technology can improve the welfare of animals in zoos.

At the same time, orang-utans are critically endangered in the wild, especially due to deforestation for palm oil plantations. Research has shown that when visitors connect with animals at the zoo, they’re more likely to care about the animals and take action to protect those animals in the wild. So I’m really excited about the opportunity to use technology to better connect us with the orang-utans.

Can you tell me a bit more about the games and apps the animals are accessing?

We’re trailing “intelligent projection” technology to give the orang-utans control over the games and applications they play to challenge their minds. We use the Kinect to detect touches on the projection on the floor, and also movement above the floor.

Right now the games are just about teaching them that this new thing is interactive. So our first ‘game’ builds off a game the zoo keepers created in which the orang-utans are trained to identify a red dot on a wall to secure a treat. But in the computer game the shape explodes with light when the orang-utan touches the shape. They seem to love the visual effects and seeing the projection on their own bodies. We’re slowly going to make it more and more challenging to see the shapes explode, to encourage their natural puzzle solving behaviours. We’re hoping to be able to introduce collaborative play here too.

We’ve also designed some painting and photograph viewing applications that enhance some of the other enrichment activities they do. One application is being aimed especially at Kiani who loves to look at pictures of herself. Dubbed “Orangstagram,” the app allows the orang-utans to browse a photo and video gallery. What’s fantastic about this is that nobody has ever really given orang-utans control over what they get to look at, so we’re going to learn so much about what they find appealing, and this can feed back into the other types of enrichment activities they’re provided.

That sounds fantastic - good luck Dr Carter!

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