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)

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.