First, the trailer:
Visiting the orang-utans at the zoo brings us face to face with some of our closest relatives. Moments of connection with these intelligent creatures can be powerfully emotional.
We heard recently about the amazing experience of a visitor to Melbourne Zoo who sat to breastfeed her child and was watched with interest by a female orang-utan.
Families are also regularly captivated by the antics of the Zoos youngest orang-utan, who seems to delight in playing near children on the other side of the glass.
Now Zoos Victoria and technology researchers are collaborating to explore whether digital technologies could let orang-utans choose to interact safely with visitors in entirely new ways.
For modern zoo organisations such as Zoos Victoria, the animals wellbeing is top priority. Cognitive enrichment is vital, particularly for species such as primates and elephants which evolved astonishing intelligence and problem-solving skills to meet the challenges of survival in the wild.
Research suggests that orang-utans like to watch whats happening on the visitors side of the glass, and interacting with visitors could be an important form of enrichment for them.
There is a real art to developing enrichment that encourages smart animals to use their intellect to explore and solve problems. On occasion, keepers at Melbourne Zoo have taken hours to prepare a new fiendish food puzzle, only to see the orang-utans solve it in a matter of minutes.
And of course enrichment must be safe and robust (an orang-utan can be nine times stronger than a human), which limits the equipment that zoos can use.
To continue to provide novelty and variety, primate keepers have started to add digital enrichment to the range of existing activities. At Melbourne, and a number of other zoos, orang-utans have learned to use a tablet computer through the wire of the enclosure to play with chase games, music-making and painting apps.
As a team of technology researchers and zoos professionals, we are investigating new forms of digital enrichment. Our collaboration began as the result of a happy accident: a Melbourne Zoo staff member happened to visit the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces, and had the opportunity to play a video game with the Microsoft Xbox and Kinect body tracker.
She quickly realised that motion-based games could provide entirely new ways to address the challenges of orang-utan enrichment.
Computer-based enrichment is an attractive prospect for zoos. It could be easily modified to provide new challenges, or tailored to an individual orang-utans skill level. It overcomes some of the safety issues of introducing new physical objects. And it might allow animals a choice of enrichment when keepers are not available.
We have created an interactive projection which works like a touchscreen on the floor, using a projector and a Microsoft Kinect body tracker placed outside the enclosure. Recently we have been trialling simple games to show the orang-utans that this interactive projection responds to their touch, and start investigating how they might use it.
A virtual touchscreen projected into the orang-utan enclosure. Joshua Newn, University of Melbourne
In our first game, which has proven a big success, large coloured dots move around the projection and explode in pulsing waves of colour when touched. The interests of Melbourne Zoos orang-utans have inspired some of our apps, including one which allows the animals to view photos or videos, choosing them from a gallery.
We are confident that the orang-utans would quickly learn to use the touchscreen if we train them to. However, as part of our research we have let orang-utans explore the touchscreen without direction.
By not rewarding them for using the projection, we have been able to investigate how interesting this enrichment is to them, see how intuitively they take to it, and see their preferred ways of interacting with it.
Catch the dot game helps orang-utans learn how to use the virtual touchscreen. Joshua Newn, University of Melbourne, Author provided
The six orang-utans at Melbourne Zoo have all tried out the interactive projection, and most seem to have learned that fun things happen when they touch the bright moving shapes on the floor.
Excitingly, they have shown us some unexpected styles of interaction, such as kissing the projection, sweeping it with the back of the hand, exploring how it works with physical objects and even swooshing a cloth at it from above.
An orang-utan investigates the photo gallery. Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces at the University of Melbourne
We hope that digital technology will allow animals greater choice over their environment and enrichment. A first step will be for orang-utans to choose which game to play.
In the future, they might be given control over lighting or temperature, or perhaps even feeding schedules and interaction with other animals or humans.
An orangutan and keeper play a game on either side of the glass, at Melbourne Zoo. Zoos Victoria, Author provided
As orang-utans seem to find humans interesting, we are experimenting with creating a shared digital space where orang-utans can choose to interact safely with keepers and even visitors.
In our first trial of a game for humans and orang-utans, we saw with delight that they chose to play even with people they had not met before, creating a powerful sense of connection for the human player.
The day is perhaps not far off when digital technology might let you get closer than ever to our primate cousins.
Sarah Webber, PhD Student in Human-Computer Interaction, University of Melbourne; Marcus Carter, SocialNUI Research Fellow, University of Melbourne, and Sally Sherwen, Animal Welfare Specialist, Zoos Victoria, University of Melbourne
If I’m not Mario, explain this 1-Up tattoo? Right, you can’t, because I AM Mario!
People online often live behind a veil of anonymity and video gamers are no exception. Hundreds of millions of people play online games every day and are known to others only by the short user name they choose for themselves. But recently it was discovered that those user names have a bit more to them then just a random assortment of words and numbers. They can, in fact, reveal a lot about a players personality.
Online video games are intriguing targets for psychologists: some of them in particular tactical multiplayer games such as League of Legends (LoL), are dynamic, problem-solving environments that require vast amounts of tactical planning, experience and learning. In some respects, we can think of League of Legends and similar types of multiplayer online battle arenas as the 21st centurys version of chess.
A single game of LoL offers each player dozens of choices: which character to play (aggressive or defensive, support or carry), whether to act as a team player or play in a more individual style, whether to adopt safe or risky strategies with predictable or unpredictable payoffs, and whether to use the same tactics from game to game or branch out and try something new each time.
Whats in a gaming name? Iryna Tiumentseva/Shutterstock
In our research, we teamed up with Riot Games (the makers of LoL), to look at the types of user names people were creating. We noticed that some players used highly antisocial words in their user names.
We will not sully your eyes with graphic examples, dear reader, but suffice it to say that they include vicious racial and sexual epithets that go far beyond the cheeky banter that you might expect from a typical young adult. Who would call themselves that? we asked ourselves and the answer, we suspected, was someone who exhibited antisocial tendencies in real life.
In their user names, players also often include two or four digit numbers which are commonly thought to refer to their year of birth. We checked this assumption (by comparing these dates to the ones provided in the registration information) and found that the two were highly, although not perfectly, correlated.
A League of Legends game in progress. Games typically last about half an hour and pit two teams of five players against each other. Teams compete to overtake the enemy base. Each player controls a single character with a unique combination of abilities.
So for some players, it seemed, we could penetrate the veil of the user name and extract two important measures: their antisocial naming tendency and their age. We figured that if people bring their real world attributes into the online world, it would also tell us something about how players behaved within the game.
Linking particular personality traits to game data would seem to be a hard task. Did that player retreat from a battle because they are risk averse or because they are a brilliant strategist? Did they collect more resources than their team mates because they have an obsessive, acquisitive nature or because the in game character they have chosen will perform best with a lot of power-ups?
To the rescue came a reporting system Riot Games embedded in LoL specifically to moderate antisocial behaviour.
These reports reflect the behaviour of players within the game. Players who act in an antisocial manner (for example, by deliberately throwing a game or swearing at others) will receive negative reports, while helpful, collaborative players will receive positive feedback.
Generally speaking, younger people tend to have weaker impulse control, poorer social skills and take offence more easily. We found that players who were young or who had antisocial user names would tend to receive and send more negative feedback. Meanwhile, older, more mature players, or those with inoffensive user names, would have relatively positive interactions with their teammates. So what does this research mean for gamers?
While identifying players who might require more attention or moderation may of course be a valuable step towards improving the quality of a game, the possibilities dont stop there. With discussions of video games being used as a way of monitoring neurological diseases such as dementia or stroke in the future, the practical applications of this research could go well beyond gaming. Its an exciting new world to explore.