Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia are studying how orangutans are able to learn and make social choices by exposing the animals to digital technology such as Microsoft's Xbox Kinect system.
In earlier studies, animal experts from Melbourne's Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces and Zoos Victoria tried to use touchscreen computers and tablets to determine the social interaction and cognitive challenges that orangutans typically experience.
However, because of the animals' curiosity and immense strength, the researchers would have to stay alongside the orangutans in order to guide them in using the computers or tablets. The animals had to put their hand or fingers through a strong mesh when operating the devices.
Despite these challenges, the researchers were able to discover that the orangutans had a penchant for using technology, especially if it gives them the chance to interact with humans.
Using Microsoft Xbox Kinect
Sally Sherwen, an animal welfare expert from Zoos Victoria, wanted to allow the orangutans to use the technology the way they see fit. She believes that it would provide the animals a richer and more engaging interaction as they can use their full range of body movements.
"They enjoyed using the tablet but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to," Sherwen said.
The researchers developed a new natural user interface (NUI) technology and incorporated it to the Xbox Kinect, a gaming console accessory that allows users to make virtual actions using their voice and body movement.
Using the Xbox Kinect, the research team is now able to create a full body-sized projection that provides the orangutans the opportunity to engage images through their body gestures.
The Xbox Kinect projection serves as a touchscreen for the animals to use without requiring any physical devices be placed inside their enclosure.
Malu The Orangutan
During their testing this week, the researchers found that the orangutans were very receptive to the projected interface.
Malu, a 12-year-old male orangutan from Melbourne Zoo, was shown a projection of a red dot. Once he saw the projection, he went over to the dot and proceeded to kiss it. The red dot then exploded. When the projection reappeared, Malu kiss it again.
Malu's actions indicate the orangutans' keen sense to using not only their hands whenever they interact.
The researchers aim to develop a new method of stimulation for the orangutans, which would allow the animals to have fun while also motivating them to use their problem solving skills.
One of the team's primary goals is to find out how the orangutans, which are known to enjoy social engagements, would behave toward humans when they are given control of their interaction.
Various computer games, picture galleries and painting applications are now being developed for the use of the orangutans.