Playful Encounters with Ants


How would you describe your relationship with insects? Specifically with ants? As humans we usually don’t relate to the kinds of animals we don’t recognize ourselves in such as snails, anchovies, frogs, or bees. However, ecological systems on this planet are dependent on these animals and we are currently investigating new ways to ensure that these kinds of species do not go extinct. Is our interest in caring for specific species solely based on their attractiveness and the amount of similarities we share with them? What if we can start to change our relationships with insects by exploring their playfulness together?

With these questions in mind I recently started a project in which I try to investigate the possibilities for humans and ants to play together. In order to do this I started a small ant colony at my workspace inside the Malmö University building. The first few weeks I am trying to get to know the ants and their preferred living environment. I will then continue to explore to what extend it is possible to engage in playful encounters together with ants through prototyping different (potentially playful) artefacts.

Part of this project involves a workshop at the 12th Student Interaction Design and Research conference (SIDeR), which will be held in Malmö on April 1-2, 2016. During this workshop we will explore and discuss this topic through the design of playful interactions with ants taking a perspective informed by posthumanism. We will use different materials to rapidly prototype playful interactions and games that aim to be of interest to both ants and humans. Then we will try out the prototypes we created with an actual Lasius Niger colony (the regular black ant) and discuss our experiences and the types of questions that these practices could propose.

(featured image from Flickr user Yogendra174)

NordiCHI 2014 Workshop

On the 27th of October, I participated in a workshop on Animal-Computer Interaction at the NordiCHI 2014 conference in Helsinki (Finland). Next to hearing about the interesting projects of other researchers in this emerging area, I got to meet some great people that share a similar passion: the research and design of technology that can improve the lives of animals.

Most of the papers that were presented had a distinct focus on dogs. For example, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas’ research at the University of Central Lancashire investigates how dogs watch TV and she presented a method of face tracking for dogs. This could open up for possibilities to develop interactive systems in which the dog’s facial recognition could be used as natural input to, for example, turn the TV on or off, and play specific content.

Researchers from the Open University UK presented their work exploring the use of (dog) personas for designing with dogs. Next to this, they are prototyping and testing interfaces for assistance dogs that are trained to detect cancer from smelling human cell-samples (see picture below). These interfaces are designed to make the communication between the dog and the human easier and more accurate.


Researchers from Georgia Tech presented a dog collar device that could make it easier to find the right job for the right assistance puppy. By looking at the physical activity of young dogs in foster families, they could obtain more objective and accurate data that can help trainers to choose which profession might suit the dog best (such as dogs trained for guidance, police work, children with impairments, etc.).

Another research that involves assistance dogs is done at the University of South-Brittany. Their paper reflected on a prototype that could improve the communication between an assistance dog and their disabled owners via remote communication using tools such as audio and GPS.

Other papers investigated the field of Animal-Computer Interaction from a more theoretical angle. Heli Väätäjä from Tampere University of Technology presented issues and measures that can help humans to assess the animal’s experience and the impacts of the technology that we develop. Other papers focused on animal-centred ethics (Clara Mancini, Open University UK), the influence of animals on the digital narratives of humans (Northumbria University), and inclusiveness in Animal-Computer Interaction design (Georgia Tech).

I also got to present my own research. For this conference, we focused on reflecting upon the user testing procedure that we followed in order to test our game for cats and humans, Felino. 

In the afternoon of the workshop we worked out a couple of scenario’s in which Animal-Computer Interaction could play a role to improve the lives of animals in the context of agriculture. Afterwards we had a very interesting discussion about how we could advance our research field and establish a strong community.

All in all it was a very productive and valuable day with a lot of interesting research projects. It was also a great chance to meet very nice people that share similar interests!