Lonely Planet Writer

Orangutans in Melbourne Zoo play Xbox for university study

Melbourne Zoo is hosting a ground-breaking enrichment programme as orangutans learn how to play interactive video games.

Six orangutans in Melbourne Zoo  playing video games as part of a ground-breaking study
Six orangutans in Melbourne Zoo playing video games as part of a ground-breaking study Image by Eric Kilby / CC BY-SA 2.0

The games were created by working with researchers at the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (NUI) and uses Microsoft’s Xbox One gaming system Kinect 3D technology.  ABC News reports that as part of the game, images are projected onto the floor in the orangutans enclosure to sense the movement by the animals as they interact with what they see. Marcus Carter, social NUI research fellow explained that the video game idea stemmed from a previous practice by zookeepers to use paintings and musical games on tablets to enrich the animals daily routine.

An estimated one-year-old Sumatran orangutan looks out from inside a cage upon arrival at Kuala Namu International Airport in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Tuesday.
The video games were created for the orangutans  by the Zoo in conjunction with the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces. Image by AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

However this was a very limited form of interaction as the staff had to hold the tablet away from the animals in case they broke it in half. Dr Carter said the concept was very good and the University decided to expand on the idea. So they came up with games using “intelligent projections”, which actually use the floor as a touch screen. He said that touch can be detected with hands and feet as well as noses and even blankets. There is also a painting app they have developed but haven’t used so far. If the orangutan touches it, it turns it into a paintbrush and if they wave their arms or roll on the floor, it creates different reactions.

Sally Sherwen , an animal welfare specialist said that their population of six orangutans were involved in the project, adding that they had already noticed individual preferences for the games that are on offer. For instance, a highly intelligent teenager named Malu was able to get the hang of the games straight away.

The world-first pilot study which began this week will run until for the next month and scientists hope to add on to the programme while tailoring it to better suit the animals. Dr Carter said that ultimately they hope to develop the technology so that visitors to the zoo will be able to interact with the animals.