In the past decade, we have seen many technological innovations to improve and advance daily human activities. From wireless devices, touch screens to virtual reality, many innovations that we frequently use today may seem like an imagination from a science fiction film.
One technological innovation that has significantly changed how humans navigate and interact with the world is virtual reality (VR). Researchers, engineers and designers alike have been interested in simulating reality in a more immersive way with every innovation. Today’s VR technology has significantly changed, pioneered by its early ideas which date back to as late as the 1800’s, such as panoramic paintings and stereoscopic photography. The latest VR innovations today—Google Cardboard, Samsung Galaxy Gear, and Oculus Rift—are by far the most multisensory virtual reality ever designed.[i]
VR technology is not only used for entertainment purposes, as some might assume. VR is now used in industries such as healthcare, sports, education, construction, engineering, and military. Through simulated realities, we are able to conduct testing, training or observation with a reduced risk of injuries or death, as it is done in controlled environments. The data produced from VR technology can be used to develop health procedures, design models, and training methods.[ii] The introduction of VR technology seems to have changed how humans perceive and experience reality. But what are the use of VR for non-human beings? Can VR also benefit them? We explore several key questions about VR below.
Q1. How can current VR technology be improved?
Although VR allows new possibilities that are safer, faster and cheaper in the long run, it is still far from perfect. The main limitations of the development of VR technology right now are: [iii]
Developing certain VR systems are not only time consuming, but also costly;
Both the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designs of VR equipment need to be intuitive and comfortable to use;
VR has been known to cause motion sickness. However, in late 2017, the first VR-related death incident was recorded when a man in Moscow tripped and crashed into a glass table and died from loss of blood while playing a VR game. Although some predict that fatal incidents are inevitable in the development of new technologies, VR developers need to consider the real-world constraints (such as surroundings) that could endanger people while using VR technology, and;
Although VR has gained global attention, and many have started to experience it, it is not yet as accessible as they could be. The advanced VR headsets, both sold for commercial or industrial purposes, are not considered affordable to some people. VR technology developers are still in the process of further research for faster, easier and cheaper productions.
Q2. How can VR technology be implemented for animals? Does it benefit them?
Although some areas of VR technology for humans still need to be improved, researchers and developers are already looking at how non-human beings can use VR. Animal behaviors differ from human behaviors and they don’t have the same intellectual capabilities as humans do, creating certain challenges in truly understanding the nature of their behaviors.
Currently, there are a number of uses of VR for animals, such as distinguishing clear comparisons of both similarities and differences between humans and animals’ cognitive behaviors. Other uses are to gain direct insight on an animal’s (such as a rat’s) sensorimotor integration, decision-making and navigation.[iv] The digital agency Isobar is currently developing VR that can provide captive animals problem-solving tools for their goal-oriented behaviors such as foraging[v], and keeping pets that prey on wildlife animals indoors and entertained in an attempt to improve wildlife preservation.[vi]
Through the introduction of VR, researchers can conduct experiments on animals that would not otherwise be possible using real-world approaches. Researchers are able to increase the range of tools to measure neural activity, coordinate the multi-sensory nature of the research to make it easier to manage, and control the sensory cues in VR explicitly and exhaustively—all of which they wouldn’t be able to do as well in real-world experiments.[vii] Researchers can also recreate a pretty much identical experimental condition each time while maintaining inherent flexibility, or to put it simply “test real-life problems without the need for language.”[viii]
Q3. What aspects of the VR design need to be changed for animal use?
Although the same general principles in VR design for humans apply for animals, there are elements of VR that need to be considered and adjusted to suit animals’ cognitions. Some things to consider when designing VR for animals are that the gear’s UX design must keep the subject animals in place comfortably, the visual UI design has to suit the animal’s vision along with removing human bias and provide content that would be relevant and interesting for the animal.[ix]
Q4. Could VR for animals become a reality in the near future?
From some of the examples above, we can see that VR technology can be applied to a number of animal species, both domesticated and wild. So far we have focused on utilizing technology to improve human lives when animals can also benefit from them. As illustrated, there are many innovative ways that technology, especially VR, can be used to not only help us understand animal behavior better but also improve their lives—and this is just the beginning.
The probability of VR for animals coming into conception may be questionable. Firstly, there would need to be enough of a demand for it to come into production. Secondly, some may argue that it might be more important to use VR for animals for greater causes such as preventing wildlife from becoming endangered (although Isobar’s prototype seems to marry a VR technology that would benefit both domesticated and wild animals).
However, we can see that research has used lab rats and captive apes as subjects to both understand their behavior better as well as improve the quality of their lives through VR.[x] Both researches seem successful in breaking the ‘language’ barrier between humans and animals. Once more studies have been conducted on how VR can be adjusted to suit animal cognition, researchers will be able to implement VR as a more staple research method for animals in the future, since the current traditional methods of observation, testing and captivity may not give us the information that animal VR would.
Like any other technological innovation, VR also comes with drawbacks. However, it seems that VR is here to stay, both for humans and animals, at least within the near future. It might be wise to consider Donato and Moser’s questions when it comes to the development of VR for animals: do animals behave the same way they do in real life as they behave in VR?[xi] The very same question could also be asked for human behavior. After all, we are technically animals.
Editors: Atin Prabandari, MA(IR) & Nabeel Khawarizmy Muna, S.IP
[i] Virtual Reality Society. (2017). History Of Virtual Reality. [online]. Virtual Reality Society. Available at: https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/history.html [Accessed at: 4 May 2018].
[ii] Virtual Reality Society. (2017). Applications Of Virtual Reality. [online]. Virtual Reality Society. Available at: https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-applications/ [Accessed at: 4 May 2018].
[iii] Ffiske, K. (2017). The State Of Immersive Reality In 2018. [online]. Virtual Reality Society. Available at: https://www.vrfocus.com/2018/01/the-state-of-immersive-reality-in-2018/ [Accessed at: 4 May 2018].
[iv] Minderer, M., Harvey, C., Donato, F. & Moser. E (2016). Virtual Reality Explored. Nature, 533, pp.324–325.
[v] Dolins, F., Schweller, L. & Milne, S. (2017). Technology advancing the study of animal cognition: using virtual reality to present virtually simulated environments to investigate nonhuman primate spatial cognition. Current Zoology: Oxford, 63(1), pp.97–108.
[vi] Cheale, H. (2018). Isobar’s Cat VR powers game-changing content for Australian Zoos. Bandt. Available at: http://www.bandt.com.au/campaigns/isobars-cat-vr-powers-game-changing-content-australian-zoos [Accessed at: 4 May 2018].
[vii] Minderer, M., Harvey, C., Donato, F. & Moser. E (2016).
[viii] Dolins, F., Schweller, L. & Milne, S. (2017).
[x] Dolins, F., Schweller, L. & Milne, S. (2017).
[xi] Minderer, M., Harvey, C., Donato, F. & Moser. E (2016).