Animals & Agency


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (3/4)

Last two blog posts I discussed the term speciesism and the intersectionalities between speciesism and other forms of oppression. In this post, I will discuss a concept that I find inspiring in speculating about future scenarios with animals: the concept of animal agency.

The Problem of Backwards Ethics

We could describe our increasing body of knowledge about the lives of animals in two different ways. Either, animals are a lot more like humans, or humans are a lot more like animals than we have dared to think in the past. It seems like the more research towards the complexity of animals we carry out, the more we start seeing that all animals are sentient, they experience emotions, they suffer, and they like to live an enjoyable life.

The heritage of a Cartesian way of thinking, in which the animal was by definition excluded from the realm of ethics and protection (Gibson, 1967), has left us with a society in which the norm allows us to make animals suffer to the most horrific extends. Our animal welfare protection ethics and laws are built on the idea that animals are readily available for our use and we are allowed to make them suffer if we can justify our reasons for doing so (such as for food production, scientific experiments, clothing, etc.). Even though we obtain more and more insights in the capabilities for all animals to feel pain and enjoyment, every species first has to prove their capabilities and suffering to us, in order to then be granted ‘better’ treatment; or to be granted a mere extra daily hour of natural light in their cage. To me this seems like a backwards way of reasoning in which we try to undo some of the damage we have caused, without going to the actual root of the suffering.

Animal Agency

This has left me thinking, what if, instead of basing my ethics on species-specific hypotheses about animal capabilities and supposed intelligence, I could actually try to provide the animal with the agency to dictate her own life? What if I personally ask the animal what she likes? In this setting, I aim to provide the animal with a space to act independently, to influence her life, and to respond to her environment autonomously.

Throughout history, the concept of animal agency has often been ignored, because animals were not seen as independent agents. But even today, we often talk about animals as voiceless: “we have to speak for the animal, because they cannot speak for themselves”, we disregard the animal’s own capability to act. The animal is presented as a static character that can be used, displayed, abused, and exploited by humans (Hribal, 2007). But, if we actually look at the animal and observe her actions, it becomes clear that animals are actually very good at telling and showing us what they like, we just have to listen.

When we write or speak about animals, they are usually not seen as agents. We do not talk about the cow as a worker, the zoo elephant as prisoner, and the escaped lama as resistor. This passive portrayal is not only a disservice to the animals that we wrote about in the past, but also forms obstacles to the relationships we want to establish with animals in the present (Hribal, 2007). Hribal writes:

Donkeys have ignored commands. Mules have dragged their hooves, Oxen have refused to work. Horses have broken equipment, Chickens have pecked people’s hands. Cows have kicked farmers’ teeth out. Pigs have escaped their pens, Dogs have pilfered extra food. Sheep have jumped over fences.” (Hribal, 2007, pp. 103)

These are all very clear acts of resistance that have, in some cases, led to better treatment (such as in the form of animal rights), however in most cases it led to more punishment: higher fences, less motion, crude devices, clipping wings, blinding eyes, and physical abuse (Hribal, 2007). Yet, animals did not just continue their labour, they also continued to resist this labour and fought against their exploitation in any way that they deem possible (Hribal, 2007). And even though we are conditioned to ignore their resistance, they will continue to tell us that they suffer. They will continue to try and tell us that they do not accept the way we abuse them. And we do not need to wait for more ‘scientific discoveries’ to understand that they are suffering, we can just look any animal in her eyes and we will know.

Agency and Design

So, what if we could start over again on a more equal ontological footing? Starting in my own research project, not only by trying to avoid animal suffering, but also by exploring the alternatives that they propose themselves. What if we could acknowledge the fact that animals have agency and we could ask each and every individual animal what she actually likes to do?

In putting this proposal in a broader societal context, it can help us to think about a future beyond anthropocentrism and beyond the oppression of animals. The field of Critical Animal Studies is focused on emphasizing highly relevant and necessary histories, theories, and issues in our current society regarding animal exploitation, oppression, killing, use, entertainment, and domestication. In this, theorists, practitioners, and activists advocate for a non-speciesist approach, which means that we wish to abandon the view that the interests of human species are more important than the interests of animal species (as with racism, sexism, or classism, where the interests of another race, gender, or class, are considered more valuable than another) (Mosely, 2009). However, since we have not paid so much attention to the agency of animals throughout history, how would we be able to understand what the interests of animal species actually are?

We have obtained lots of useful insights in animals’ lives through observational research towards animal behaviour by carrying out ethnographic studies and biological, evolutionary, and ecology research. But these types of studies have a focus on understanding the animal’s behaviour and history. I suggest that we could complement our understanding of animal agency and interests with design based research. This type of research allows us to ask question, speculate about a future together, and experiment with different modes of mutual understanding between humans and animals. The process of design and shared agency allows us to get to know the animal and identify with their struggles. I think that this could be a significant and powerful force in eliciting social change.

In the following, and final blog post in this series I will discuss how playful design could be a helpful field of designing for acknowledging and listening to animal agency.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.


Gibson, A., B. (1967). The Philosophy of Descartes. London, UK: Russell&Russell Pub.

Hribal, J. (2007). Animals, agency, and class: Writing the history of animals from below. Human Ecology Review, 14(1), pp. 101-­‐112. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from

Mosley, Albert (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Retrieved, March 23, 2016 from


Animals & Other Forms of Oppression

Little Bird

A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (2/4)

In my previous post I discussed the term speciesism and questioned what a non-speciesist approach in my research could mean. In this post I will suggest how we could use theories from other forms of oppression to think about our relationships with animals.


The term intersectionality refers to overlapping systems of oppression, discrimination, and domination, which are all interlinked. In other words, this theory invites us to think about how things like racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism are connected: they exist on the same premises, they are built on each other, and they are influencing each other.

In her 1988 book The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel illustrates a range of startling similarities between human and animal slavery. Comparing speciesism with racism might sound insulting at first, but then we see the examples: removing children from their parents, similar means of transporting, the unhealthy living conditions, the hunting down of escaped individuals, experimentation on their bodies, and the list goes on.


But the similarities between different forms of oppression do not stop there. If we look at systems of oppression based on gender (particularly regarding women), we see that in a patriarchal society both “animals, and women are objectified, hunted, invaded, colonised, owned, consumed, and forced to yield and produce” (Collard, 1988).

Furthermore, we can see that these different forms of oppression are interrelated and not separable. Meaning that the stereotypical image of the oppressor and the oppressed is shared between things like gender, race, or class. Some examples:

  • Trophy hunters are most often white males that aim to shoot the biggest animal, which is usually a male (Kalof and Fitzgerald, 2003);
  • Most meat and farm animals are females, while most butchers and farmers are males (Calvo, 2008);
  • 84-98% of the animal cruelty cases in the US are committed by men (Herzog, 2011);
  • Farm animals are usually bred specifically according to characteristics like docile, affectionate, good mothers, and dependent, which are often assigned to value women too (ibid);
  • Farming and butchering labour are usually considered as jobs for a lower class in western society and the culture of meat eating is deeply entangled in manifestations of class and privilege. (Here you can find a more elaborate essay on this topic)

Please note that these are statements related to extreme engagements with animal oppression. In society we can also find numerous examples that contradict with these stereotypes. However the most important insight for me here is that the more we break down different forms of oppression and their relationships with each other, the more we see this:

“Any oppression helps to prop up other forms of oppression. This is why it is vital to link oppressions in our minds, to look for the common, shared aspects, and fight against them as one, rather than prioritising victim’s suffering (the ‘either-or’ pitfall). For when we prioritise we are in effect becoming one with the oppressor. We are deciding that one individual or group is more important than another, deciding that one individual’s pain is ‘less important’ than that of the next.” (Spiegel, 1996, p.30).

In other words, if you are against the oppression of human beings, it becomes particularly appropriate and important to extend the field of concern to animals (Selby, 1995). Or perhaps as philosopher Albert Schweitzer noted (including my adaptation): “Until he [we] extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, man [we] will not himself find peace.” (Schweitzer, 1987, originally published in 1923). I would even go as far as saying that in this logic, it becomes a paradox to say that you are against things like racism or sexism, while putting a burger in your mouth. Yes, I just said that out loud and I mean it.

Anyway… what does this have to do with my research?

I think that if we wish to aim for a non-speciesist approach and aspire to improve animal welfare with our own research, we should position our discussions in the same field of critical theory that has informed other forms of oppression. Since the topic of oppression is widely discussed and researched across disciplines, existing insights are very relevant in finding answers to some of the questions we raise and can help to advance our field.

While looking at animals, play, and technology in specific, we could regard how fields like games studies, human computer interaction, or design based research have critically engaged with the topic of oppression in the past (for example through fields like critical games/design, serious games, speculative design, and design fiction) and how they aim to contribute to a better future for the oppressed. Additionally, if the aim of our research is to include animals in our research in order to figure out what sort of design artefact they would want, it might help to learn from existing projects that similarly aim to give a voice to ‘the oppressed’ in other contexts. You can find some interesting examples here, herehere, here, here, here and here.

In the next post I will discuss more about providing the animal with their own agency, a voice that we can listen to.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our trip to Helsinki in the fall of 2014, where we met some beautiful city-animals.


Collard, A. (1988). Rape of the Wild. Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth, Women’s Press, 1.

Herzog, H. (2011). Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Kalof, L., and Firzgerald, A. (2003). Reading the trophy: Exploring the display of dead animals in hunting magazines. Visual Studies, 18(2), p. 112-122.

Schweitzer, A. (1987). The Philosophy of Civilization. (Translation of Kulturphilosophie). New York, NY: Prometheurs Books.

Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Spiegel, M. (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York, NY: Mirror Books. In Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books

Animals & Us


A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (1/4)

This semester I am following a course called Critical Animal Studies at Lund University. In this course, we discuss the topic of animals in society from a critical perspective. More straightforward: we discuss how we, human beings, massively engage in the oppression, exploitation, and domination of animals. Apart from the relevance of this course for my research and the political stances I take in my writings, this course had a very big impact on my personal life.

For these reasons I am sharing a series of four blog posts on my main takeaways of this course (let me know if you want to have the full reading list!). Moreover, we all inevitably participate in this oppression of animals and stimulate its continuation by the choices we make on a daily basis. Therefore it might be relevant for you to read along, discuss these topics together, and form your own critical stances. Let me throw in a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to get started: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1988, originally published in 1789).


One term that kept coming back throughout the course was speciesism. In one of the readings it was carefully explained like this:

“Speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the human species are more important than the interest of non-human species. Thus, humans are justified in using non-human species in ways that depreciate the interests of non-humans in favor of the interests of humans. As with racism – where the interest of one race are valued more highly than the interests of another race, and sexism – where the interests of males are valued more highly than the interests of females, in speciesism the interest of humans is more valuable than the interests of non-humans.” (Mosely, 2009, p. 2)

Mosely continues to explain how this view is very deeply rooted in the morals and values we usually consider the norm in western society. In our culture, ethical values and ideas have been largely derived from frameworks from both philosophy and religion. In religion, it is usually assumed that men are born as higher creatures (other animals are placed under man’s domination). Likewise, the woman was created from man, to serve as helpmate and companion. In philosophical traditions, speciesist views were largely based on animals’ presumed incapability of reasoning: animals cannot reason, therefore they are inferior (Aristotle), animals have instrumental, but no intrinsic value (Aquinas), animals are no members of the moral community because they are machine-like, lack the ability to speak, reason, and act autonomously (Descartes).

However, some scientists and philosophers (such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer) have challenged these assumptions, by arguing for what we all know by now: humans and animals share the ability to feel things like pain, suffering, emotions, and pleasure. Animals are sentient individuals. Following ethical logic it is therefore morally wrong to ignore suffering caused by humans, solely for habits that are unnecessary to our survival (such as meat eating, entertainment (in zoos, fighting, circuses, etc.), experimentation, and farming). Exactly… we do not need these things to survive, so how can we morally justify the suffering we cause? (for references on this topic see: Pick, 1993; Noske, 1997; Best, 2005; Burt, 2006; Marino, Bradshaw, and Malamud, 2009.

Arguments like, “we deserve better treatment because we are smarter or stronger”, quickly break down, since we still strive to prevent the unnecessary suffering of new-born children, disabled people, or the elderly. So what we are left with at the end is speciesism: we justify our arguments for causing animal suffering, solely because we classify humans, ourselves, as more important (much like the logics of slave-owners, Nazi’s, or misogynists, but more about that later).

Through intellectual reasoning and logic we come to a shocking revelation: what if we were wrong? What if the norms we have created, and widely accept, are built on mistakes? What if we are confronted with unjustified suffering everywhere, on a massive scale, and everyone is participating? If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thoughts about nearly everything in our lives will find change.


The documentary called Speciesism deals with these questions in a very elegant way. Without the need for disturbing footage, the filmmaker discusses the logic of the arguments we have used to justify the elevation of humans above all other species. I would highly recommend you to spend 90 minutes of your life watching this enjoyable and thought provoking film. As the reviews say:

“For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.”

Also, please talk to me if you have watched this film and you would like to know or discuss more!

Taking a non-speciesist approach

But what does all of this exactly mean for my research and personal values? In 2011, when I started doing my research about animals, play, and technology, researcher Clara Mancini released a manifesto called Animal Computer Interaction. This has marked the starting point for a recognized and growing research field that seeks to include animals as actual participants and/or users in the technology we develop. In this widely cited document she advocates for taking a “non-speciesist approach to research” (Mancini, 2011, p. 72). Explained as giving animals and humans equal consideration, respect, and care and protecting animals from suffering (Mancini, 2011). But what does it truly mean to take a non-speciesist approach?

If we want to contribute to improve animal welfare with our research, can this be framed within a society that is already deeply entangled in animal oppression, or does this have to start from its roots? If our entire society is built on speciesist norms, how can we escape this as researchers?

The field of Animal Computer Interaction seeks to help the animal, and yet its outcomes (mine included) consist of projects that largely stimulate and support institutions that could be questioned within a non-speciesist approach. These include things like animal enabled technology in zoos that exist for human entertainment, farms that exist for consumption, the use of assistant animals for human purposes, and domestic animals that are owned by someone. These projects seem to emphasize the need for treating animals better, but aren’t we allowing ourselves to continue to rely on speciesist norms?

Our research work (as well as the personal decisions we make in daily life) can have a big impact for the animals and humans in society. But if a non-speciesist approach already starts by not bringing your laptop to work in a leather bag (yep, I felt the need to change my bag), or not participating in projects that rely on – or stimulate – animal oppression, how can we start tackling the speciesism issue at its core? And how can the field of design help with this? I hope that asking these questions could be a start in itself. So let’s use our voice to discuss these relevant issues, instead of avoiding them, as ignorance will only lead to further alienation.

Next post I will discuss how we could look at similarities with other forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, or classism) to think about our relationships with animals and inform our research.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.



Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Baird, R. M, Rosenbaum, S. E. (eds.), New York, NY: Prometheus Books.

Best, S. (2005). Genetic science, animal exploitation, and the challenge for demovracy. AI & Society, 20(1), 6-21.

Burt, J. (2006). Conflicts around Slaughter in Modernity. In the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals, p. 210-144. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mancini, C. (2011). Animal computer interaction: A manifesto. Interactions, 18(4), 69-73.

Marino, L., Bradshaw, G., and Malamud, R. (2009). The captivity industry: The reality of zoos and aquariums. Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2009, 24-27. Available at

Mosley, A. (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Available at

Noske, B. (1997). Domestication Under Capitalism + The Animal Industrial Complex. In Noske, B., Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, p. 11-39. Montreal, CA: Black Rose Books.

Pick, D. (1993). The Perfect Abattoir. In Pick, D., War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, p. 178-188, London, UK: Yale University Press.

Playful Encounters with Ants


How would you describe your relationship with insects? Specifically with ants? As humans we usually don’t relate to the kinds of animals we don’t recognize ourselves in such as snails, anchovies, frogs, or bees. However, ecological systems on this planet are dependent on these animals and we are currently investigating new ways to ensure that these kinds of species do not go extinct. Is our interest in caring for specific species solely based on their attractiveness and the amount of similarities we share with them? What if we can start to change our relationships with insects by exploring their playfulness together?

With these questions in mind I recently started a project in which I try to investigate the possibilities for humans and ants to play together. In order to do this I started a small ant colony at my workspace inside the Malmö University building. The first few weeks I am trying to get to know the ants and their preferred living environment. I will then continue to explore to what extend it is possible to engage in playful encounters together with ants through prototyping different (potentially playful) artefacts.

Part of this project involves a workshop at the 12th Student Interaction Design and Research conference (SIDeR), which will be held in Malmö on April 1-2, 2016. During this workshop we will explore and discuss this topic through the design of playful interactions with ants taking a perspective informed by posthumanism. We will use different materials to rapidly prototype playful interactions and games that aim to be of interest to both ants and humans. Then we will try out the prototypes we created with an actual Lasius Niger colony (the regular black ant) and discuss our experiences and the types of questions that these practices could propose.

(featured image from Flickr user Yogendra174)

The First International Congress on Animal Human Computer Interaction

On the 11th of November, the Advanced Computer Entertainment (ACE’14) Conference took place in Funchal (Madeira) hosting the first international conference on Animal Computer Interaction (ACI). Unlike previous ACI gatherings, this one played host to a mixing pot of ideas and frameworks which aimed to put formats into a currently sparse and often exploratory area of animals within computer technology.

Unfortunately I could not attend this congress myself, because I was part of a panel and presenting a paper at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference in Istanbul. Luckily my friend and researcher with common interest Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas was going to present her work in Madeira and agreed on presenting my paper as well. She wrote this blog post as a summary of the congress.

The themes of the congress were mostly dog driven but did also play homage to apes and cats. This blog post will map the questions raised during this conference to help give a more indulgent representation of the day with the references given.


Heli Väätäjä. Animal Welfare as a Design Goal in Technology Mediated Human-Animal Interaction – Opportunities with Haptics

Heli skillfully presented a paper which contained a framework for measuring interaction in ACI with animal welfare as a design goal. The framework included synchronization, awareness and input/outputs to name a few measurements. This interaction was haptic based with questions raised on what stimuli a dog would prefer. Another key question raised during the discussion of the paper was what is animal welfare and if it is an animal ‘feeling good’ how can this be measured?

As designers within ACI we do not have that functionality to simply ask the end-user for an evaluation and with the standards of animal welfare ranging vastly in diffracting contexts, this paper frames key points of thought for any dog designer dealing with haptic interaction.

Claire Micklin. DogTracker: A Mobile App Engaging Citizens and Officials in Addressing the Stray Dog Crisis

Claire presented a conceptual idea for a mobile app which allowed citizens to photography and possibly geomap a stray dog’s locational data in order to create a heat-map of the stray’s movements. The idea of long range RFID tags (300ft) feasibility within this study was also discussed along with collective ownership. The idea of collective ownership over strays is a debatable one as many academics within the conference argued it could encourage a lack of responsibility and result in the dog not receiving the best possible care. This ideology did however allow the culture of the local populous which was studied fit the dog rather than vice versa as it did not force the community to change.

A key argument against this app being open source would be that while this app could generate heat-maps to allow people to help the dogs it could also do the contradictory and allow those who did not like dogs to harm them. For this reason the availability of the data crowd sourced was discussed.

Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas and Janet C. Read. Who Is Really In the Centre Of Dog Computer Interaction?

Ilyena presented an article on creating more dog-centered interaction with questions being raised around the differences in dog-centered and human-centered interaction in ACI and ultimately who they benefited. This was done by splitting the interaction into Humanization (making the animal fit the human model), Domestication (value for human and animal) and Playful with a sliding scale on animal to human benefits.

While this paper was quite open to discussion it was noted that it can be hard to define playful behaviour without preconceptions and while the paper aimed to grasp a big ideology it could maybe by only fitting this model into certain contexts this can be answered.  However it did open up important question in ACI: Who is in the center of design in ACI?

Patricia Pons, Javier Jaen and Alejandro Catala. Animal Ludens: Building Intelligent Playful Environments for Animals

Patricia presented a paper aiming to model features of interactive environments with their benefits and faults using measurements such as human participants, control and single/multipurpose activities. This paper presented a much indiscriminate outlook on ACI which the authors planned to use in later studies. The key question that arose within this research: do animals like games? While currently there is no form of consent the common understanding of consent in ACI appears to be non-participation, with many ACI researchers allowing the animals to simply walk away and show no interest in the interaction.

Sarah Ritvo and Robert Allison. Challenges Related to Nonhuman Animal-Computer Interaction: Usability and ‘Liking’

Sarah presented a touch-screen interface split in half to allow apes (orangutans) to choose to listen to 30 seconds of music (country) or listen to silence to try and understand if apes like music. The interaction was done through a stylus in the animal’s zoo and found the animals often preferred silence. The authors also tried more natural animal sounds and video but this only lead to the animals being scared which the researcher speculated was to do with their unnatural environment.

Emphasis of the research was put on cost benefit analysis of ACI work with the author wanting to develop generalized guidelines for animal interactions with specific animal concerns. Inquiries were raised on how these guidelines aim to be gathered and if in fact you could create rules for all animals.

Michelle Westerlaken and Stefano Gualeni. Grounded Zoomorphism: an evaluation methodology for ACI design 

The authors presented their work on a new method of evaluating interactions of ACI with a playful artifact using Felino, a tablet game that aims to provide play for both cats and humans. Their method relies on a Grounded Theory approach and aims at guiding design and research in ACI in a way that is better focused on the experience and needs of the animals interacting with playful, digital artefacts. While Felino is still within early developments, they started to implement iterations that the authors found, such as a parallel in cats curiosity at hidden items on screen and off screen and choices in size/colour of playful artifacts.

Inquiries were raised on the relationship effect between the changes made and iterations but this could not be answered yet at such an early stage within the research.

PANEL “Animal Human Computer Interaction – The Future”

After the presentations there was a panel discussion on where the organizers (Oskar, Clara and Yoram) discussed what direction they see ACI going and why they are interested in ACI. After this, a discussion was held on how to advance ACI as a community as currently it is a very niche area presented within various conferences. It was decided that a facebook group was going to be made allowing researchers to keep in touch:


Thank you very much Ilyena for writing this post! It seems like you all had a very interesting and productive day in Madeira.

NordiCHI 2014 Workshop

On the 27th of October, I participated in a workshop on Animal-Computer Interaction at the NordiCHI 2014 conference in Helsinki (Finland). Next to hearing about the interesting projects of other researchers in this emerging area, I got to meet some great people that share a similar passion: the research and design of technology that can improve the lives of animals.

Most of the papers that were presented had a distinct focus on dogs. For example, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas’ research at the University of Central Lancashire investigates how dogs watch TV and she presented a method of face tracking for dogs. This could open up for possibilities to develop interactive systems in which the dog’s facial recognition could be used as natural input to, for example, turn the TV on or off, and play specific content.

Researchers from the Open University UK presented their work exploring the use of (dog) personas for designing with dogs. Next to this, they are prototyping and testing interfaces for assistance dogs that are trained to detect cancer from smelling human cell-samples (see picture below). These interfaces are designed to make the communication between the dog and the human easier and more accurate.


Researchers from Georgia Tech presented a dog collar device that could make it easier to find the right job for the right assistance puppy. By looking at the physical activity of young dogs in foster families, they could obtain more objective and accurate data that can help trainers to choose which profession might suit the dog best (such as dogs trained for guidance, police work, children with impairments, etc.).

Another research that involves assistance dogs is done at the University of South-Brittany. Their paper reflected on a prototype that could improve the communication between an assistance dog and their disabled owners via remote communication using tools such as audio and GPS.

Other papers investigated the field of Animal-Computer Interaction from a more theoretical angle. Heli Väätäjä from Tampere University of Technology presented issues and measures that can help humans to assess the animal’s experience and the impacts of the technology that we develop. Other papers focused on animal-centred ethics (Clara Mancini, Open University UK), the influence of animals on the digital narratives of humans (Northumbria University), and inclusiveness in Animal-Computer Interaction design (Georgia Tech).

I also got to present my own research. For this conference, we focused on reflecting upon the user testing procedure that we followed in order to test our game for cats and humans, Felino. 

In the afternoon of the workshop we worked out a couple of scenario’s in which Animal-Computer Interaction could play a role to improve the lives of animals in the context of agriculture. Afterwards we had a very interesting discussion about how we could advance our research field and establish a strong community.

All in all it was a very productive and valuable day with a lot of interesting research projects. It was also a great chance to meet very nice people that share similar interests!

Virtual Reality: The Future for Chickens?

Imagine a farm in which the animals are living inside a shed but are tricked into thinking that they are roaming free. US company Second Lifestock is following the human trend to live in an increasing digital and augmented reality by proposing virtual reality headsets designed for chickens.

Second Livestock's virtual world for chickens

Artist Austin Stewart developed an idea for a living environment in which chickens are locked inside a small plexiglas cylinder wearing a virtual headset comparable to the Oculus Rift. The chicken is placed on a ball that turns in every direction and can be used to walk freely inside a virtual environment. They could also peck at small insects or water, which would be translated as real food and water on a sensor-controlled tray that follows the bird’s beak inside the plexiglas cylinder.

Chickens using the virtual reality in the battery farm

Technically, this would all be possible, however, according to Stewart it is currently too expensive to further develop. Another problem that prevents further development includes the differences between the eye-side of chickens and humans. Chickens can see a color that humans cannot: ultraviolet. In order to recreate a ‘believable’ virtual environment for chickens, existing digital screens will have to show this color. However, even with this implementation it remains difficult to find out what chickens would actually like to see as pointed out by Stewart in an interview. Chickens that are bred in captivation do not have any experience of freedom. Whatever species they came from is completely gone so there is no way to know what a truly wild chicken would want.

Even though this design proposal might sound unethical to some, according to philosopher and cultural geographer Clemens Driessen it could be a more welcome solution compared to existing proposals for improving the life quality of chickens including blinkers to narrow their eye-side or even breeding blind chicken (that are unable to see their living environment and peck at each other).

The main goal of this project is to start a discussion about the way in which captivated animals are treated. I believe it raises a lot of questions. Would it be preferable to design technology that allows for more captivation or better natural living environments? Is it realistic to think that technology can actually improve the lives of these chickens? What does it mean to improve the life of an animal anyway? What is the influence of a capitalistic society on these ideas? Who decides the appropriate context for new design that aims at improving animal welfare? What is the role of the animal in the design of these virtual spaces?

(Images from

Co-Designing with Dogs – Open University UK

The Open University’s Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) lab organized a workshop on the 12th and 13th of April 2013 on Co-Designing with Dogs. This workshop is part of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project, led by the University of Edinburgh. This project has the aim to “explore how a broader account of community – one that recognises the active participation of non-humans – might challenge understandings of how research can be co-designed and co-produced“.

The objective of ACI research is described on the ACI Blog by Clara Mancini, Research Fellow and head of the Animal-Computer Interaction Lab at The Open University:

One of the aims – perhaps the most important aim – of Animal-Computer Interaction as a research discipline is to develop a user-centred approach to the design of technology intended for animals. Not only does this mean developing technology which is informed by the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences. Crucially it also means involving animal users in the development process as legitimate stakeholders, design contributors and research participants“.

This workshop focused on assistant dog training and specifically aimed to explore how animals can contribute to ACI research and interaction design processes. The ACI lab is planning to design “a series of plug-on, dog-friendly computing interfaces for various domestic appliances to support assistance dogs in their tasks, thus improving their welfare and professional life”. This includes, for example, dog friendly interfaces for washing machines, light switches, and door handles: devices that are currently not informed by the perspective of the dog.

The video that summarizes this workshop can be watched below. The ACI lab follows a meaningful approach that, besides the play-element, is very much in line with the research I am pursuing. I am convinced that it will give a valuable understanding of the needs and preferences of assistance dogs. Furthermore the other workshops of the More-Than-Human Participatory research project could show new examples of participatory design with animals as the intended users.

How dogs watch TV

In contrast to other dogs, my dogs are not very interested in watching TV. However, with the development of new technologies this might change in the future.

According to Ernst Otto Ropstad, an associate professor at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, with the development of newer TV’s with a higher resolution and more frames per second, dogs might be able to actually perceive TV as film instead of a set of flickering images.

Where we as humans need about 16 to 20 frames per second to perceive images as moving film, according to this article, dogs need about 70 frames per second. Still, dogs perceive the content in a different way than humans, because dogs see different colours. They perceive colours with only two cones (retina receptors) where humans have three. In his book, The Truth About Dogs, Steven Budiansky shows the image below, visualising how dogs perceive colours based on a research by Neitz, Geist, and Jacobs. The left size represents the image how humans would observe it and the right side shows the perception of dogs. Due to this difference in visual capabilities, dogs also generally see less detail than humans.

According to Ropstad, not all dogs can see equally well or show as much interest in watching TV as others. There might be a difference in dog breeds and/or an individual difference that has not been researched yet.

The activity of TV watching dogs has already been recognized by Dog TV channel startups that create content specifically for dogs. Besides some ear movements, my dogs were not too enthusiastic about the videos shown for example on the website of DOGTV, but perhaps a better frame rate, bigger screens, and less lazy dogs might give more interesting results.

dog colors

Animal Computer Interaction on National TV

Yesterday evening during the Dutch TV program De Wereld Leert Door (The World Keeps on Learning) game professor Marinka Copier from the HKU (Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht) explained more about the Playing with Pigs project I wrote earlier about on this blog.

The show is aired in Dutch but I wrote a summary in English below.


Game professor Marinka Copier is leading a research for new game opportunities on the HKU. This includes the challenge of finding a way to allow human an animal to play together. Since the Netherlands is a leading country in the field of game development, according to Marinka there is a logical connection with scientific research that provokes a change in behaviour through games. This is what the research on the HKU is focused on. This project is carried out in collaboration with multiple academic disciplines including applied philosophy (Clemens Driessen),biology, medicine, education, and entertainment.

The HKU is developing a videogame for pigs. This project was started because of the EU law that prescribes environment enrichment in the living environment of pigs. The farming industry is looking for ways to enable this with the right materials. Marinka shows different elements that are currently used in sheds, such as ‘Pig Chewing-gum’, a chain that resembles pebble stones the pigs like to chew on, or pinewood sticks, also for the pigs to chew on.

The development of videogames for pigs requires a different kind of approach. This has first been shown in the nineties by Stanley Curtis, who researched a computer game designed for apes on pigs (video footage of this is shown at 00:04:01 ). In this game the pig needed to use the joystick to move the cursor into a white area. The pig was doing this to earn a reward in the form of food (an extrinsic motivation). In this research the pigs were better at this task than dogs and also learned it faster than apes.

The idea for a videogame for pigs developed by the HKU came from a farmer. The goal of the game is to move the pig towards a specific area. This is done by showing light-bulbs on a glass wall that the pigs can follow with their nose. The player is in control of moving the light-bulbs and gains more points if he succeeds in bringing the pig to the target area. In this game the pig is motivated through intrinsic motivation to play. This means that the research (described as ‘research through design’) focused on finding out how the pigs responded to certain sensor triggers such as playing keyboard in the shed, showing moving images, providing contact with different objects, and finally offering play with laser lights. Then they discovered that pigs like to play with light in the same way that cats like to do this. According to Marinka, this was not yet discovered by animal scientists, which means that through design it is possible to get more insights into other fields of knowledge as well.

The game will be playable for people from their own home next year. The purpose of this game on the human side is to trigger questions. All pigs with which the player is allowed to play eventually go to the slaughterhouse and it is left open to the player on how to cope with this. Maybe it will provoke a change in behaviour? Or maybe the meat will taste better with pigs that have played this game? Or the score of the game can be displayed on the package of the meat? This might sound heartless, but it enlarges the impact of the game and the connection with different scientific areas. This project wants to trigger durable changes in behaviour with actual play.

The project can be followed online. Next to this the exposition Ja Natuurlijk will open on the 14th of March in ‘Gemeentemuseum Den Haag’ in which, next to Pig Chase, more projects related to humans and animals can be seen.

The program closes with Marinka giving a tweet about her research to the next generation: ‘Challenge: do you want a durable change in behaviour? Create a playful society.

Digitally mediated human-animal interaction with Sphero

I recently discovered a nice playful example of an artefact that could function as a digital mediator between human-animal interaction: Sphero. A durable robotic ball that you can control from a smartphone or tablet (supported on both Android and IOS). This video shortly explains it:

It already offers a large amount of functions and entertainment (think about gaming, light, music, and augmented reality apps) Sphero is engineered so developers can create applications themselves with the Full API and Mobile SDK for IOS and Android. This makes is specifically suitable for innovation in playful human-animal interaction. Furthermore, it could facilitate the development of prototypes for further research towards digitally mediated human-animal interaction.

Some fan-made and Sphero videos already show how Sphero evokes the curiosity and playfulness of cats, dogs, and yes, to some extent even bunnies:

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

(uploaded by d2looo)

(uploaded by Sphero official Youtube channel)

Inter-Species Play

One of the main elements I established in my research so far is that many animals (including humans) play. I emphasized that this is always a free and voluntary activity since we can never force an animal to play. It is therefore a very suitable concept to embrace when we want to design technical artefacts that facilitate human-animal play.

Next to this, it is discovered that animals use certain signals to communicate their intention to play so that the invited animal does not confuse playful behaviour with actions such as fighting or mating, which show overlapping types of behaviour (such as biting, mounting, or producing certain sounds). A very clear example of this is the play bow we can observe in social play among dogs. However, according to Pierce and Bekoff (2009), the social lives of animals have evolved many examples of communicative signals that help getting along with each other and remain close and generally peaceful relationships. In animal play this includes signals such as self-handicapping, where the animal compromises its behaviour patterns or role-reversing by, for example, a dominant animal that makes dramatic roll over on its back.

According to the same article of Pierce and Bekoff (2009) there are four basic aspects in animal play: “Ask first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit you’re wrong. When the rules of play are violated, and when fairness breaks down, so does play.”

The question I am interested in at this point is how play between different animal species (including humans) can be facilitated. How could we communicate playful intentions according to the rules that make social play possible in inter-species interactions? What are the rules? And which animal species are most suitable in this case?

When looking at inter-species play, for example in the videos below, we can observe that, next to all the cuteness, in many occasions play interaction and communication of signals between different animals seem to be understood well enough to continue playing. Play facilitates a mutual understanding due to the shared interaction and response to signs, cues, and behaviour which allows specific species to understand others up to a level that enables them to perform playful activities together. This is exactly what we need for the successful design of playful technical artefacts for human-animal interaction.


(Image by _tar0_)

Human-Animal Interaction Through the Internet

This video on the CNN website shows how the website visitors of a Californian animal shelter can remotely interact with kittens through the internet. The application allows its users to remotely move objects in the kittens’ shelter and real-time video is provided so that the human being can see how the kittens respond to their actions. What is great about this project is that Best Friend Animal Society reported that the cat adoptions HAVE MORE THAN DOUBLED after setting up this technology.

Another, slightly older research that focused on remote human-animal interaction includes the Poultry Internet – Mixed Reality Lab project carried out in Singapore. This study proposes and tests a cybernetics system that uses mobile and internet technology to allow human-animal interaction including both visualization and tactile sensation of real objects. The chicken in this video is wearing a hap-tic jacket, and the human is able to interact with the animal by touching a pet-doll object containing sensors, which are transferred to the hap-tic jacket in the form of vibrations. In other words: if the human touches the pet-doll object, the animal feels vibrations through the jacket. Interesting to me in this case is that the tested chickens in a preference experiments chose the room in which the vibrations were activated in 73% of the cases over a room without the activated jacket.

Next to these two examples, there are other technological artefacts that allow for remote human-animal interaction, such as dog GPS tracking products, webcam streams for a variety of wildlife, or the Pig Chase project also referred to in another post on this blog.

The most remarkable thing to me in this case is that all the examples mentioned above allow for human-animal interaction that is initially activated, stimulated, and operated solely by the human being. This results in a type of one-way communication in which the human-being is in control and decides when and how the interaction takes place. However, the results of both projects in the videos above (higher adoption rate and positive preference studies) seem promising for both the human being and the animal.

(Image by Eva Touloupidou)

Pig Chase

This project, carried out by the Utrecht School of the Arts in collaboration with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, researched the complex relationships between pigs and humans through game design. The purpose of this game was to provide pigs with their natural need to play, experience the cognitive capabilities of both human and pig, and facilitate new relations between species. Their next goal is to actually realize the project. The video in this post shows how the game works.

What makes this research project interesting to me is the collaboration between the research areas: game design, animal welfare, and philosophy. Next to this the social purpose to enrich the lives of the pigs through play and thereby improve the animal welfare is a very positive and valuable approach in my opinion. It would be interesting to get a broader understanding of the experience of the animals involved in this form of play and how the interaction with human beings takes influences their lives.

(video:, 2012)