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 secondlivestock.com)

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)