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)

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)