Game on for Melbourne Zoo’s Xbox orangutans

Six orangutans at Melbourne Zoo in Australia have received a late Christmas present—their very own customised Xbox.

The idea came about after researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI) discovered keepers had been using digital tablets loaded with art and music-based games as part of an enrichment program with the highly intelligent and communicative animals. However, the devices always had to be held by humans because orangutans are as strong as they are smart, and could easily snap the tablets in half.

To further the enrichment program, SocialNUI developed a series of games and apps that use Kinect 3D technology to project images onto the floor of the animals’ enclosure, and to detect movement when the orangutans interact with the images.

Effectively, when these ‘intelligent projections’ are activated, the entire floor becomes one big colourful touchscreen, which the primates can operate with their hands, feet and noses.

‘They enjoyed using the tablet but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to,’ says Sally Sherwen, Zoos Victoria’s animal welfare specialist. ‘We think that by providing new experiences and promoting positive behaviours, this form of digital enrichment may have the potential to significantly improve their welfare. The findings from this research will be applied to other animals in zoos around the world.’

The world-first technology, which is being introduced in stages throughout February, includes a painting app, computer games, and picture galleries. Researchers are optimistic that it will give the animals the ability to solve problems—as they would have to do in the wild, whilst seeking food, shelter and mates—and initiate games for their own amusement. Ultimately, they’re interested to see what happens when the orangutans are given the chance to control interaction between themselves and humans.

Some orangutans got the hang of the technology quicker than others…
Some orangutans got the hang of the technology quicker than others…

Like an average group of people, the orangutans are adapting to the challenges of using new technology at different speeds, with a bright teenage male called Malu getting the hang of it particularly quickly. During the first test, Malu spied a red dot moving across the floor and immediately went across and kissed it. That caused the dot to visually ‘explode’, and when it reappeared he kissed it again.

‘It is well-recognised that orangutans, and great apes in general, require considerable enrichment, including problem-solving tasks designed to challenge their highly evolved cognitive skills,’ says Dr Marcus Carter, Research Fellow with SocialNUI at the University of Melbourne.

‘The reason these guys are in the zoo is because we want people to be able to have a connection with them and do more to protect them in the wild. If we can use technology to make you realise how smart they are, I think that’s really powerful.’