Technology at the Zoo

With the special issue in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (IJHCS) in ACI coming out, I decided to take an in-depth look at the papers currently in press. With pet animals dominating the ACI field, one article caught my eye: ‘Interactive technology and human-animal encounters at the zoo’ written by Sarah Webber, Marcus Carter, Wally Smith and Frank Vetere. Sarah Webber is becoming known in the ACI field for leading the way on zoo tech, earlier this year run HCI goes to the Zoo a CHI workshop and previously publishing in ACI2015 symposiums and Animal Welfare Science and ACI among others.

To find out about her article, and zoo technology, I got in contact with Sarah Webber.

Hello Sarah, first of all thank-you for agreeing to speak with me. I really enjoyed reading your IJHCS SI article! I was wondering as a researcher how you got into ACI, and particularly with zoos?

I have always felt strongly that humans need to show more responsibility for the survival and wellbeing of the other species that share our planet, and as a technology researcher have been interested in how computing might play a role in this. My partner works for Melbourne Zoo, and it was through her that I learned about some of the challenges in creating varied cognitive enrichment for smart animals such as orang-utans. I got talking to her colleague, Sally Sherwen, who is the Zoo’s resident animal welfare specialist, and we immediately saw there were opportunities for providing varied, safe enrichment using sensor-based technologies (such as the Kinect) and tangible or embedded computing.

Apes with apps, another project Sarah Webber looked at within her article
Apes with apps, another project Sarah Webber looked at within her article

Sounds brilliant – I imagine the start of introducing the technology was rather exciting! As someone in ACI, but more towards the pet area, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about what exactly is Zoo ACI to you?

The Zoo has to balance animal welfare priorities with their objectives of offering educational and inspiring experiences for the public who come to view animals in naturalistic settings. I think there is an important role for technology to play in helping to manage these tensions through interventions which enhance animal welfare and contribute to visitors’ experience of encounters with animals.

I noticed those tensions played out within your research where you mentioned technology is to education and enhance the visitors experience of the animals whilst not distracting from them. I found this to be interesting as within my work is tension between human-tech-dog but yours has a lot more players involved in the ACI interaction. Did anything surprise you about what you found whilst working with the zoo and the technology?

A zoopermarket one of the systems Sarah Webber looked at in Melbourne zoo where users can scan and see how much palm oil is used in products to reduce usage and help preserve orangutans natural home.
The Zoopermarket aims to educate people about sustainable palm oil helping them learn which manufactuers are committing to sustainable palm oil so they can make the right choice or encourage manufactuers in the right direction

I’ve been very excited to see how many zoos are investigating the use of technology for animal enrichment, including programmed puzzle feeders. There are some fun challenges to deal with though, to protect equipment out on the grounds of the zoo. I expected that the major issues would be the weather and rough treatment by the animals. In fact, the biggest threats to computer hardware are said to be dust, possum pee and teenage boys!

Things you wouldn’t normally expect – I also thought it would be from the animals! ACI Zoo tech I am sure is likely to grow with the ACI field. Your article was a case study on Melbourne Zoo, do you have plans to expand your case studies to other zoos?

I’m always very interested to learn about interactive technology at zoos around the world, and to find out about their successes and challenges. So I’d love to hear about the experiences and interventions at other zoos.

A child watching an orangutan at the Zoo playing Xbox games as part of the Kinecting with Orangutans project.
A child watching an orangutan at the Zoo playing with interactive projections as part of the Kinecting with Orangutans project.

With the bringing together of Zoo ACI researchers at CHI a community forming of researchers will enable methods and theories created to be tested cross-zoos so to speak! Within Zoo ACI whilst having all these players within a system you also have the goals of ACI research and the goals of the Zoo.  What do you see as the differences in these two aims?

I think some of ACI’s fundamental goals are closely allied to zoos’ objectives: ensuring animal welfare and fostering positive human-animal relations, for example. However, zoos are sites with organisational priorities, resource constraints and existing operational practices. I am interested in considering how we can broaden the scope of ACI to think about how we design for settings such as the zoo, where animals and humans interact.

Your article has a really nice section on this where it looks into the different ACI interactions in place with the aims of these systems. What were your key findings from this paper?

I hope zoos will be interested in the implications for designing technology in this context. The paper suggests some ways that interactive technology might support specific dimensions of the visitor experience that zoos try to create.

For ACI more broadly, the paper points to the fact that using technology is not just about relationships and interactions between an individual human and an individual animal. Technology often figures in the interactions between multiple humans and animals, or one human with multiple animals; there are many exciting design opportunities which emerge from this.

This notion towards multiple rather than individual interactions was foundation within your paper. I found this quite interesting as to engage someone it seemed to be on a personal level e.g. you mention mothers wanting to see births. It must be fairly complicated to make personalised experiences, to encourage identification and empathy, whilst having multiple interactions.I noticed within your paper you seem to mention Weilenman and Juhlins (2011) study, why do you think their perspective within work applies so much to yours, in this context?

Reading ACI literature, I have been struck by the fact that most work seems to examine a single animal working or living with a single human. Whereas in the zoo, we generally find there are lots of humans (a family group, a crowd, or team of keepers) on one side of the glass, and usually a number of animals on the other side. It occurred to me that of course this multiplicity of human and animals also occurs in family homes, dog parks, farms…

Just as the field of HCI shift started by studying a single user with a single device as though in a bubble, but then shifted to examining collaborative use and the broader social context of use, so too I believe the field of ACI will need to move into investigating how technology is intervening more broadly in encounters between humans and animals: ‘socially-situated ACI’, if you like.

An orangutan at the Zoo playing Xbox games as part of the Kinecting with Orangutans project.
An orangutan at the Zoo playing with interactive projection games as part of the Kinecting with Orangutans project.

I agree with you there – I believe the ACI field is likely to develop as it matures. There are still instances of singular use, but in a very much intra-action agential realism way ACI is an “ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies” as Karen Bared said. On page 19, you suggest some qualities to measure the visitor experience within the human-animal encounter, such as visibility, personal connection, immersion etc. I found myself whilst reading these, from a dog ACI background, noticing that this frame for analysing interactive systems from a user experience (UX) point of view could also work in animal rescue centred scenarios.  For instance, people will often rescue dogs that they feel they have a connection with, that they see etc. Do you think this could apply?

Certainly I think some of these dimensions would apply to the experience of seeing animals at rescue shelters. Though, reflecting on my own experience of adopting animals from shelters, I think there were a number of practical considerations that came into play as this animal might be coming to live in my home: size, energy levels, age…

Of course – there is a more considerations needed but from the rescue center technological perspective I see that ACI can play a large part. Adrian Cheok in his paper on haptic technology jackets for chickens mentions ‘it will be nice for children and adults to go to a zoo and be able to enjoy stroking the lion mane’ (Lee et al., 2006, p16). Within your work, there is a reoccurring theme of immersion into an experience to enhance whilst educating the zoo visitors. Do you think technology like this would be beneficial to zoo ACI, both through the immersion you mention, and the education factor?

A demonstration of virtual chicken & device allowing chickens to be remotely stroked through haptic technology
A demonstration of virtual chicken & device allowing chickens to be remotely stroked through haptic technology

The question of whether technologies can recreate that sense of physical presence, or of immersion in a natural environment, is an interesting one that certainly needs more research. Virtual reality and haptics are at a stage where they still seem to me a little clumsy, which is maybe not a big issue in some domains – but perhaps presents some barriers to effectively representing animals or the natural world.

Maybe, once again, as technology evolves! Within your work technology that you currently use is iPads. I found it interesting that staff at the zoo would often use iPads to show visitors live feed of the animal to help create an exclusive experience (p28). This reminded me of when I recently visited Finland and really wanted to see these endangered rare fresh water seals (Saimaa Ringed Seal) but due to their rarity and being hard to find, this was not possible. Instead WWF did live video footage of where the seals where known to locate to help people see the seals whilst educating people about them. I notice they used this technology in a similar way the zoo staff did with their videos.  Do you think that by opening up this live stream of the animals within the zoo, this could help not only educate the guests within the zoo further by allowing them to access it themselves, but also beyond the zoos four walls?  

Saimaannorppa Live: Snapshot taken from live footage of online streaming of endangered animals by the WWF
Saimaannorppa Live: Snapshot taken from live footage of online streaming of endangered animals by the WWF

Yes, live-streaming is an opportunity that is attracting considerable interest. I think it will be important to investigate whether, and how, the sense of proximity to the animal (the fact that it is within sight, though perhaps at a distance) contributes to the powerful experience of the ‘keeper-cam’ view.

I know of it also being done within birds housing, I think it would be an interesting research area from the educational sence. I was shocked to find there is currently no technology mentioned within your case study at this zoo of facilitating direct visitor-animal interaction. Do you see such a system being implemented, and ought it be? Have you tried or seen a system like this?

At our CHI workshop, HCI goes to the Zoo, a couple of interventions were presented which allowed interaction between animals and visitors. I was particularly taken with the interactive sound installation at Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen, presented by Nick Hermans and Berry Eggen. The challenge lies in designing interventions which provide meaningful enrichment for animals, are engaging for visitors, and ensure visitor safety as well as animal wellbeing.

Interactive installation puzzle project done by Nick Hermans to allow visitors to feel what the orangutans movements within the puzzle are having tangible contact
Interactive installation puzzle project done by Nick Hermans to allow visitors to feel what the orangutans movements within the puzzle are having tangible contact

Once again back to the tensions we earlier mentioned. Following on from the previous question, apes for apps is being used currently through bars of the cage. In your work (p37) a keeper mentions wanting to give the app the device and walk away. Not working with apes myself, I thought that a keeper would have given the ape the device to play freely with, or via a glass touch screen panel or projections, allowing spontaneous interactions. I know that when Ritvio and Allison (2014) worked with apes they gave them styluses to use on the touch screen. A system that the animal could play with freely could also facilitate, as in the previous comment, visitor-animal interactions. Do you think something like this could be done?

Yes, robust touchscreen devices have been offered to primates in research labs, of course, and in some zoos (Zoo Atlanta’s Learning Tree installation is a well-known example). However, these devices tend to be very expensive to build and maintain, so the value of the installation needs to be clear to the organisation.  This means some interesting challenges at the research and prototyping stage.

A tree with interactive screens inbuilt to allow for apes to explore programs.
A tree from Zoo Atlanta’s Learning Tree Installation, with interactive screens inbuilt to allow for orangutans to explore programs.

I imagine zoo animals make interesting testers especially with a policy of not entering the enclosures! You mention that you do not want technology to distract from the current interactions (p39) and by allowing constant access, or too much technology this could happen, but it could also enhance the enclosure like current systems. Like in all ACI, this conflict, highlighted in this instance, just points out the unknown line of what is enrichment and an interruption.  How do you make sure, on the animal side, that the animal is enriched by the systems that the zoo uses?

That’s right, there is some concern that flashy interactive technology shouldn’t take a central role and distract visitors from the animals. As to your second point, we are turning primarily to assessment techniques used in animal welfare and behaviour studies to try to understand what seems to be enriching for animals.

I can’t wait to hear about this in your future publications! Where do you see your own research going from here?

I am involved with the Kinecting with Orang-utans project which is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and Zoos Victoria. This work is investigating digital enrichment for orang-utans using a projector-based virtual touchscreen system. I’m particularly interested in how design choices for this sort of intervention impact on the visitor’s experience of the animal encounter at the zoo.

Sounds like an interesting project, especially when compared to the touch screen technology in HCI, I look forward to hearing about it! Thank-you for taking some time to talk to me about your work and article. To find out more about Sarahs Webbers work you can find her at her website, follow her on twitter for the latest updates and find her other publications at the University of Melbourne on their website.

As the field of ACI grows, the animals that we are entangled with in our environment, such as our homes and zoos, are often the ones most justifiable in need of technology whether of enrichment, communication, games or simply monitoring their health. I look forward to the growth of this field to benefit both the humans and non-human animals involved.


Webber, S., Carter, M., Smith, W. & Vetere, F.., 2016. Interactive technology and human-animal encounters at the zoo. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Special Issue: Animal Computer Interaction.


Lee, S.P., Cheok, A.D., James, T.K.S., Debra, G.P.L., Jie, C.W., Chuang, W. and Farbiz, F., 2006. A mobile pet wearable computer and mixed reality system for human–poultry interaction through the internet. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing10(5), pp.301-317.

Rault, J.L., Webber, S. and Carter, M., 2015. Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Animal Welfare Science and Animal-Computer Interaction.ACM, New York, NY, USA.

Ritvo, S.E., Allison, R.S., 2014. Challenges related to nonhuman animal-computer interaction: usability and’Liking’. In: Proceedings of the 2014 Workshops on Advances in Computer Entertainment Conference, ACM, p. 4.

Webber, S., Carter, M., Watters, J., Krebs, B., Sherwen, S., Mancini, C., French, F., O’Hara, K. and French, F., 2016, May. HCI Goes to the Zoo:[Workshop Proposal]. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 3355-3362). ACM.

Weilenmann, A., & Juhlin, O. (2011, May). Understanding people and animals: the use of a positioning system in ordinary human-canine interaction. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 2631-2640). ACM.

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