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.
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)
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: www.playingwithpigs.nl, 2012)
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.
After 10 weeks of full-time thinking, reading, and writing, I handed in the graduation documents for my Master in Media Innovation at the NHTV Breda (the Netherlands). Allthough the timeframe was relatively short, it was without a doubt the best and most interesting personal project I worked on during my study. I was able to extensively improve my capabilities as a student and researcher and it provided me with the encouragement and hopefully the opportunity to continue my research in the area of digitally mediated animal interaction.
The main part of this project includes the research thesis: Design Methodologies for Embodied Play in Canine Digital Interaction
This thesis proposes a theoretical framework based on embodied play, a phenomenological approach, and the avoidance of superficial forms of anthropomorphism. Furthermore it provides a critical review of existing literature in the area of animal computer interaction.
I created this blog to provide you, the (hopefully) interested reader, with more insights on the research project I’m working on in the area of technologically mediated animal interaction. More information about me, Michelle Westerlaken, as well as more information about the research topic that captured my interest can be found in the menu on top of this page.
On this blog I’d like to share existing projects, theories, and any other relevant or inspiring information and thereby create a collection of interesting material that is, according to me, worth sharing.
My purpose is to continue research in the area of digitally mediated animal interaction. If you have any advice, contacts, or opportunities that could be interesting for me, please contact me via email or follow me on Twitter (@colombinary).