25% PhD Seminar: Imagining Non-Speciesism

After a bit more than 1,5 years of PhD-ing, next week it’s time for my 25% seminar. It will take place on May 2nd at Malmö University (10.15-12.00). I will present the current state of my research which includes a theoretical framing as well as some ongoing design projects that involve cats, dogs, ants, and penguins. After this talk, there will be a discussion on my work together with Prof. Maria Hellström Reimer.

In the seminar I will be drawing from my newest paper. Part of this text will be published soon in a special issue on the topic of ‘Utopias’ in a journal called Antae. Please find the abstract for my talk below. Let me know if you’re interested in receiving the full text and/or attending this seminar!

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Title of the Talk: Imagining Non-Speciesism


We live in a world where (non-human) animals are killed and abused in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension. This killing is ubiquitous and omnipresent, and yet largely invisible to most people. Once we come to the realization that the normalization of animal oppression is something that we should oppose, envisioning futures that abandon ‘speciesism’ requires an almost unimaginable rethinking of our current society. Yet, resistance and alternative practices do exist. These forces consist of alternative opinions, attitudes, feelings, meanings, and values, which are not considered to be the norm, but can somehow still be accommodated and tolerated within dominant culture.

In this modest approach towards imagining non-speciesist futures – which invites serious ethical consideration of animals – I aim to bring those under-emphasized and hidden alternative perspectives to light in order to make them more valid and more real as practices that counter hegemony. By paying attention to existing philosophies and personal affective accounts, this project highlights alternatives and possibilities for designers/artists, in the broadest sense of the word, to imagine and shape futures that are utopian, not just for humans, but for animals as well. I conclude by arguing and exemplifying how shared encounters with animals that are open to surprises, joy, and playfulness can inspire us to re-negotiate relationships with other beings. In this set-up, we can explore alternative scenarios, practice our sensitivity, develop empathy, and try out different realities together with other animals.

The Playful Penguins of Long Beach, CA

Together with Stefano Gualeni, we took a road trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach (California) last weekend. As I shared in a previous blog post, the Magellanic penguins in this aquarium are hooked on playing video games (originally designed for cats) on a tablet device. Since I was in the neighbourhood (I’m spending two months doing a course on Meaningful Game Design at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, taught by Stefano) I contacted aviculturist Sara Mandel, who introduced the games to the penguins, and planned a special visit.

We had an awesome afternoon filled with interesting conversations on penguin playfulness and curiosity and lots of opportunities for starting a new design project. In case you’re asking, of course we met the famous penguins too! I was amazed by how curious and playful these penguins are.

The Magellanic penguins of this non-profit aquarium are either rescued or born in captivity (including transfers from other zoos) and they cannot be returned to the wild. In captivity they can live up to 25/30 years (as opposed to 15 in the wild) and they are especially playful in their first years.


When we entered the so-called “penguin back-stage area” (where the penguins are fed and taken care of, away from the visitors), a couple of penguins were already waiting for some interaction. Without being shy, they approached us, allowed us to pet them, and nibbled at our clothes, bags, and shoes. We soon opened a bucket of toys and the penguins started playing immediately with the rubber objects, squeaking toys, towels, and plastic bottles at their disposal. When Sara took the Ipad out, it was evident that they knew what was coming. Three young penguin players gathered around the screen and started to interact with the video game.

As mentioned, the game itself is actually developed for cats. Compared to my experience of cats playing video games, the penguins seemed to be much quicker at it and the touch screen reacted surprisingly well to the input of their beaks. However, the lack of physical components seems to be slightly frustrating for the penguins (similarly to cats) who visibly became more excited and jumpy the longer they played with the game. Two baby chicks tried the game for the first time during our visit and it took them less than 10 seconds to approach the game and start chasing the objects on the screen.


There is, to our knowledge, no environment enrichment or games that are specifically developed for penguins in captivity. In other words, here’s a great opportunity for a new design project, and I hope to find ways to contribute as part of my PhD research in the future.

Now Live: Escape Room Challenges with Ants

Update: after half a day of streaming, Twitch closed the stream as they don’t think it’s gaming content (I am working on trying to get this stream back on Twitch, but in the meantime you can view it here: http://connectcast.tv/Colombinary)

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This is funny, because non-gaming content is actually defined like this:

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Yes, you read that correctly. In this new era of animals interacting with technology, ants are playing escape room challenges. What’s more is that you can now watch a livestream on Twitch of the ants in my living room that are currently playing different rooms that were designed by a group of 16 great interaction designers in Malmö (Sweden).

For those that are new to this concept: an escape room is a physical adventure game in which players are locked inside a room and have to use elements of the room to solve a series of puzzles and escape within a set time limit (usually an hour). Let me explain how I got to the idea of trying this out with ants.

The Backstory

As mentioned in a previous blog post, in January I started a small ant colony on my desk at Malmö University. I wanted to try to get to know these ants and see if there was any way to explore how we could design for – and with – these small insects. My aim was to speculate on how we could change our relationships with ants (a species we usually don’t really relate to) by engaging in playful encounters together. By doing this, we could perhaps start thinking about future scenarios that are less human centred and more focused on what we share with other species on this planet.


Some surprising things happened since then. One of these was their remarkable escape story. Even though I promised my department head that I wouldn’t let the ants escape (sorry Sara!), after a few weeks of having ants on my desk I noticed that they were occasionally walking around on the desk, never really venturing out very far, because the ant-queen remained inside the nest. I could not figure out how they managed to escape, so each time I carefully picked up the ants and put them back in the nest, only to find them walking around on my desk again a few hours later. A few days passed and I noticed that the ants were ripping off small pieces of carton from a nearby source and carried these pieces back into their nest. Then I started following one ant around carefully and I discovered the amazing construction they had set up:

The ants had found a small opening between two walls of the Plexiglas arena and managed to stack some pieces of carton in between that crack, in order to make the opening bigger and escape comfortably.

After my initial enthusiasm over what these ants appeared to be capable of, I felt bad about having to close that opening again and I started to reflect on what this story could tell me about designing playful artefacts for – and with – ants.

The Escape Room Workshop

So apparently these ants wanted to escape their living environment. Even though we usually like to explain animal behaviour as purely functional, I refuse to believe that the ants only escaped because they needed something. Couldn’t it be possible that the ants escaped simply because they were curious? Because they wanted to know what is behind the corner? Maybe they smelled something? Or maybe they felt like experiencing a new place.

Using this as inspiration I organised an Escape Room for Ants design workshop at the 2016 Student Interaction Design Research conference (SIDeR) in Malmö. During this workshop, 16 interaction/game designers spent 2 hours developing prototypes for an escape room for ants. The goal was to develop a challenge that would not be too easy, and not too difficult, for the ants to solve, using a bunch of different materials I provided. We wanted to experiment with the idea of seeing the ants as actual players and design an interesting challenge that the ants could actually enjoy solving.

The Twitch Stream

During this workshop, five different prototypes were built.  I am currently testing these with the ants and streaming the entire thing live via Twitch. Since it might take a while before the ants solve the escape room puzzles, I am connecting each room for about a week in order to see what happens and have some time to speculate about the experiment.

It might be difficult to see exactly what is going on, so perhaps these captions help you to understand the set-up and the desired challenge that the designers of the rooms envision:

Room #1 – See-saw Madness


Room #2 – Heaven


Room #3 – Dutch Canals


Room #4 – The See-Saw Circus


Room #5 – The Dilemma


Most importantly, now is the time I would like to hear from you! Does watching these ants play escape rooms make you feel itchy? Or uncomfortable? Do you think it will never be possible for ants to play games? What could the future of human-insect relationships hold? Do you feel bad for the ants being locked inside this room without informed consent? What are your thoughts on these type of speculations?

Please comment on this post below, or in the Twitch stream chat, or on social media, or send me an email with your thoughts. I really appreciate your feedback and your comments will be part of my PhD research.

These are the credits of the five different rooms that will be shown over the next weeks:

Title: See-Saw MadnessDSC08026(made by: Ralitsa Plamenova Retkova, Simon Nilsson, Eliel Camargo-Molina, Pak Lau)

Title: Heaven DSC08023(made by: Marian Vijverberg, Nele Schmidt, Koen Wijbrands)

Title: The Dilemma DSC08031(made by: Caroline Lundqvist, Nikos Kompotis, Jeanette Falk Olesen)

Title: The See-Saw CircusDSC08029(made by: Marjo Tikkanen, Ida Naeve, Rene van der Velden, Sara Said Moslen)

Title: Dutch CanalsDSC08022(made by: Jan Teunissen, Mike den Hertog)

An Interview with New Scientist Magazine

This week, the New Scientist published a feature article about the design of technology for animals in their magazine. The article focuses on how technology that involves the animal as users can enhance their lives as well as ours.

Journalist Rachel Nuwer interviewed several researchers about this topic including Clara Mancini (Open University UK), Hanna Wirman (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), Melody Jackson (Georgia Institute of Technology), Jeff Bozkurt (University of North Carolina), Anna Gergely (Eötvös Loránd University), and Fiona French (London Metropolitan University). The article also includes a small part from an interview I had with Nuwer about my own research.

It’s fantastic to read about the work that all these great people are doing and a magazine like New Scientist might be an important opportunity to make this research topic visible to a larger audience. I added some images of the article below and the full text can be found here on the website of New Scientist.



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

Fish “Play” Video Games?

Virtual reality and simulations created for animals could help scientists in studying animal behaviour using new research methods. Even though researchers can never be sure on how animals perceive the world, the environment, and therefore also the simulation of it, a virtual environment provides a certain amount of control and the possibility to exclude (potentially) influential variables.

An example of how virtual reality helps in animal behaviour research is recently published in the Science journal. At Princeton University, researchers have developed a digital application projected into a fish tank that simulates prey for the bluegill sunfish.

In this so called “game” the red dots (representing prey) moved in different ways and it was found that they were less likely attacked by the bluegill sunfish if they moved in group formation. This experiment provided the researchers with more control over the parameters and the coding enabled random formation and movement of the dots. New plans include the development of a 3D environment.

Other examples of digital simulations for studying animal behaviour include cockroaches moving in simulated forests, male moths tempted by virtual female olfactory cues, mice navigating in a virtual maze, and zebrafish chasing virtual objects.

The use of virtual reality and digital simulations for animal behaviour research brings up two main questions for me:

– How do these animals perceive their environment and is this somehow comparable with their perception of reality?

– And is there any reason for the connection of this experience for the animal with ‘play’ or (video) ‘games’ as exemplified in this BBC message or questioned in this article?

I think we should be very careful in connecting concepts such as ‘reality’ or ‘play’ to these experiments, since drawing conclusions based on superficial anthropomorphic statements, such as fish playing video games, could prevent us from actually acquiring a closer understanding of the animal.

(Image by Charles&Clint)

Apps gone wild

Over the last few months several mobile/tablet applications intended for animal use have caught, not only mine, but a lot of people’s attention indicated by the amount of Youtube views and other buzz created by the videos mentioned in this post:

This Ipad game for cats created by Hiccup is one of the first applications intended for non-human use that got the attention of a large audience. In this very simple game the cat can chase either a digital representation of a mouse or a laser light. By tapping the object with their paws (or other body parts) the cat receives points. So far all the cats and kittens interacting with this application in my presence showed at least an interest in the moving object on the screen, most of them also started tapping the screen, and especially kittens got quite hooked in the chase after a while.

While this game, called Ant Smasher, is actually designed for human beings, the over 6,2 million viewers of this video could see how this bearded dragon interacted with the game. Other videos confirm that certain reptiles have an interest in screen interaction through this application or similar ones.

Next to these examples, there are apps functioning as tools for humans, such as dog whistles, GPS tracking, or training apps, that solely  focus on human needs and preferences, without the animal being aware of the (digital) interaction. Although these tools might come in handy for pet owners, they do not provide (human-)animal interaction or stimulate interaction through play and are therefore not part of the research I am focusing on.

The mobile applications shown in this post are commercially successful examples of how apps could facilitate ‘something’ for non-human species. However it does not provide us with a better understanding of the animal or its physical and mental needs. A lot of questions remain: is the animal actually playing? If yes, how is this form of play stimulated? How does the animal recognize represented digital objects? What does this interaction mean to the animal? Is the animal enjoying the interaction? What is actual enjoyment for an animal? Why does the animal play? How could human beings take part in the interaction? etc. 

I am convinced further research towards digitally mediated (human-)animal interaction can help us in finding answers.

TOUCH project

image by zachstern

One of the first projects I came across during my graduation research is the TOUCH project: ‘Bringing new Technology to Orangutans for Understanding and Communicating cross-species for greater Harmony‘. This project, carried through by School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University by Dr. Hanna Wirman, researches the possibilities for facilitating in cross-species interaction and enrichment for orangutans through digital games.

The focus of this project is centered around both human and orangutan and the potential for interaction between these two species. The researchers are aiming for the development of digital games in which humans might be defeated by orangutans through for example visual or short term memory games.

The blog that evolved around the TOUCH project, LUDUS ANIMALIS provides insights and updates on the research as well as an interesting collection of sources on animals, play and a few other animal computer interaction projects.

(Image by zachstern)