A “monkey media player” that lets zoo animals choose between video and audio files suggests they’d rather spend more time listening than watching.
The reader is the latest development in ongoing research into zoo enrichment by animal-computer interaction specialists from the University of Glasgow in the UK and Aalto University in Finland.
Enrichment activities for zoo animals are important for maintaining their physical and mental health and improving their quality of life. Some zoos already use computerized interactive enrichment systems with primates such as gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. Touchscreen systems are designed to entertain and engage animals with cognition-boosting interactions comparable to activities they might undertake in the wild.
The researchers set out to explore how a group of three white-faced saki monkeys from Helsinki’s Korkeasaari Zoo would respond to the possibility of triggering on-demand audio or visual stimuli, such as a primate-focused Spotify or Netflix. The system is the first of its kind to offer monkeys a choice of stimuli.
To do this, they built a computer interface contained in a small wooden and plastic tunnel that they placed in the monkey enclosure. Infrared sensors created three interactive zones of equal size inside the tunnel. As the monkeys moved through an infrared beam, it triggered either video or sound on a screen in front of them that played for as long as they chose to stay.
The device remained in the sakis’ compound for a total of 32 days. For the first seven days, the tunnel was quiet to allow them to get used to its presence. For the next 18 days, they could choose between an audio or video stimulus that changed every few days. During the experiment, these stimuli were sounds of rain, music or traffic noise, or videos of worms, underwater scenes, or abstract shapes and colors.
Each time they interacted with the system, it automatically recorded what was playing and how long they spent in the interactive area that triggered the content to play. Finally, for seven days at the end of the experiment, the tunnel became non-interactive again. A side view of the “monkey media player” showing the hardware involved.
While the audio-visual stimuli elements of the tunnel were active, the sakis’ interactions were mostly short, lasting a few seconds each time they walked or ran through the system – mirroring how they interacted with more familiar elements in their enclosure.
The sakis triggered audio stimuli twice as much in total as visual stimuli, but over time their interactions changed. As the study progressed, their overall levels of interaction with both stimuli dropped, but their interactions with visual stimuli increased compared to audio stimuli. In total, they listened to music most of the three audio files and watched underwater video most often.
The research was led by Dr Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow, together with her colleague Vilma Kankaanpää from Aalto University in Finland.
It builds on the pair’s previous research using a similar system that measured sakis’ interactions initially with video alone and then with audio alone. This is the first time that the sakis had the possibility of interacting with the two stimuli.
Dr Hirskyj-Douglas, from the University of Glasgow School of Computing Science, said: ‘We have been working with Korkeasaari Zoo for several years now to find out more about how white-faced saki could benefit from computer systems designed specifically for them. Previously, we’ve explored how they interact with video and audio content, but this is the first time we’ve given the option to choose between the two.
“Our findings raise a number of questions that deserve further study to help us build effective interactive enrichment systems. Further study could help us determine whether the brief interactions were simply part of their typical behavior or reflected their level of interest in the system. Likewise, their different levels of interaction over time could reflect how engaging they found the content, or simply that they were getting used to the presence of the tunnel in their enclosure. Although they chose audio more consistently than video, the results were not statistically significant enough for us to know for sure which they preferred.
“Animal-computer interaction is still an emerging area of research. The data we collected in this study will be part of further developments as we learn more about their habits and preferences. The ultimate goal for us is to bridge the gap between human understanding of how animals access and experience computer systems in order to create meaningful and relevant experiences for monkeys.
Kirsi Pynnönen-Oudman, research coordinator at Helsinki Zoo/Korkeasaari, added: “Very little research has been done on monkeys in the family Pitheciidae and their enrichment in zoos. This study on white-faced saki monkeys gives us valuable data on how to use different enrichment items for these New World monkeys. They live in the lower rainforest canopy of Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. In general, saki monkeys (Pithecia pithecia) are not studied very intensively, neither in the wild nor in captivity.
“This kind of new information will help conservation efforts for this species both in the wild and in captivity. Saki have a breeding program, called the EAZA Ex situ programs, running in European zoos. The program coordinator recently visited our zoo and was very interested in the studies done on them using the animal-guided choice tunnels.
The research findings will be presented at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Interactive Systems Design, taking place June 13-17, 2022. An accompanying research paper, “Do Monkeys Want Audio or Visual Stimuli?” Interactive computers for choice with white-faced sakis in zoos will also be available online.
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