Foundations of animal-computer interaction explored with monkeys of the Helsinki Zoo

Much like humans, animals have also been using computers for a long time. Historically animals have used computer technology in space, used lexigrams (symbol keyboards) to form language, and dolphins have used underwater keyboards. Drawing parallels to human-computer interaction (HCI) research, which studies how humans use computers, ACI aims to investigate how animals interact with technology and the design of related devices. These technologies are developed to be used with animals in zoos and sanctuaries, working animals, domesticated animals in our homes, and wild animals. In HCI, user-centred design is an established methodology for designing with the users by including them as participants within the design process itself.

As computer systems are becoming more and more widespread, Roosa Piitulainen, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas and Tapio Takala from Aalto University Computer Science department have recently started looking at how technologies can be used to support the welfare of animals housed in the zoo environment. The work is done in collaboration with the Helsinki Zoo, and applies user-centred design and playful interaction to investigate how we can design computer systems for these animals.

Of particular interest is exploring what it means to have animal-controlled technologies, and how we can support the animals’ autonomy over the technologies that they use. For example, the animals could use the technology for changing their environment or interacting with visitors.

Part of this question, and the starting point for product specifics, is what should the zoo-technology do and how should it be used? To explore what the requirements are in designing and building zoo-technological systems, the team is also researching how requirements should be formed and gathered from the various perspectives of the people who interact with the animals and from the animals themselves. These requirements are then being used for building devices for white-faced sakis in the Amazonian House of the Helsinki Zoo.

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Roosa Piitulainen trying out a prototype with the monkeys.