As a part of my job I regularly visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes. On the 5 June, I managed to find some time to attend a seminar by my colleague Clara Mancini. Over the last couple of years, I had heard that Clara had been doing some research into the subject of Animal-Computer Interaction but we had never really had the opportunity to chat about her work. Her seminar was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the various ideas and projects she was working on.
After a short introduction, Clara mentioned a number of topics from human-computer interaction (or 'interaction design'). These included topics such as the use of ambient technology. This could include the use of smart sensors that can be embedded into the fabric of buildings, for example, so their environmental conditions and properties can dynamically change. Other topics include the use of augmented reality. This is where additional information is presented on top of a 'real' scene. You might say that Google Glass is one product that can make good use of augmented reality.
Clara also spoke of the interaction design process (or cycle), where there is a loop of requirements gathering, designing and prototyping, followed by evaluation. A key part of the process is that users are always involved. ACI is very similar to HCI. The biggest difference is the users.
History and context
It goes without saying that technology is being used and continues to be used to understand our natural world. One area which is particularly interesting is that of conservation research, i.e. understanding how animals behave in their natural environment. One approach to develop an understanding is to 'tag' animals with tracking devices. This, of course, raises some fundamental challenges. If a device is too obtrusive, it might disrupt how an animal interacts within its natural environment.
Another example of the application of technology is the use of computer driven lexigraphic applications (or tools) with great apes. The aim of such research is to understand the ways that primates may understand language. In conducting such research, we might then be able to gain an insight into how our own language has evolved or developed.
Products and systems could be designed that could potentially increase the quality of life for an animal. Clara mentioned the development of automated milking machines. Rather than herding cows to a single milking facility at a particular time, cows might instead go to robotic milking machines at times when it suits them. An interesting effect of this is that such developments have the potential to upset the complex social hierarchies of herds. Technology has consequences.
One important aspect of HCI or interaction design is the notion of user experience. Usability is whether a product allows users to achieve their fundamental goals. User experience, on the other hand, is about how people feel about a product or a design. A number of different usability experience goals have emerged from HCI, such as whether a design is considered to be emotionally fulfilling or satisfying. Interaction designers are able to directly ask users their opinions about a particular design. When it comes to designing systems and devices for animals, asking opinions isn't an option. Clara also made the point that in some cases, it's difficult for us humans to give an opinion. In some senses by considering ACI, we force ourselves to take a careful look at our own view of interaction design.
Aims of ACI
Clara presented three objectives of ACI. Firstly, ACI is about understanding the interaction and the relationship between animals and technology. The second is that ACI is about designing computer technology to give animals a better life, to support them in their tasks and to facilitate or foster intra and inter species relationships. The third is to inform development of a user-centred approach that can be used to best design technology intended for animals.
Clara made the very clear point that ACI is not about conducting experiments with animals. One important aspect of HCI is that researchers need to clearly consider the issues of ethics. Participants in HCI research are required to give informed consent. When it comes to ACI, gaining consent is not possible. Instead, there is an understanding that the interests of participants should take precedence over the interests of science and society.
Clara described a system called Retriva (company website), where dogs can be tagged with collars which have a GPS tracking device. Essentially, such a product allows a solution to the simple question of: 'if only I could find where my dog was using my iPhone'. Interestingly, such a device has the potential to change the relational dynamics between dog owner and dog. Clara gave an example where an owner might continually call the name of the dog whilst out walking. The dog would then use the voice to locate where the owner was. If a tracker device is used on a dog, an owner might be tempted less to call out (since he or she can see where the dog is on their tracking app). Instead of the owner looking for the dog, the dog looks for the owner (since the dog is less reliant on hearing the owner's voice).
Dogs are, of course, used in extreme situations, such as searching for survivors following a natural disaster. Technology might be used to monitor vital signs of a dog that enters into potentially dangerous areas. Different parameters might be able to give handlers an indication of how stressed it might be.
As well as humanitarian uses, dogs can be used in medicine as 'medical detection dogs'. I understand that some dogs can be trained to detect the presence of certain types of cancers. From Clara's presentation I understand that the fundamental challenges include training dogs and attempting to understand the responses of dogs after samples have been given to them (since there is a risk of humans not understanding what the dog is communicating when their behavioural response to a sample is not as expected).
One project that was interesting is the possible ways in which technology might be used to potentially improve welfare. One project, funded by the Dogs Trust, will investigate the use of ambient computing and interactive design to improve the welfare of kennelled dogs. Some ideas might include the ways in which the animals might be able to control aspects of their own environment. A more contented dog may give way to a more positive rehoming outcome.
Clara presents a question, which is, 'why should we care about all this stuff?' Studying ACI has the potential to act as a mirror to our own HCI challenges. It allows us to think outside of the human box and potentially consider different ways of thinking about (and solving) problems.
A second reason connects back to an earlier example and relates to questions of sustainability. Food production has significant costs in terms of energy, pollution and welfare. By considering and applying technology, there is an opportunity to potentially reconceptualise and rethink aspects of agricultural systems. A further reason relates to understanding about to go about making environments more accessible for people who share their lives with companion animals, i.e. dogs who may offer help with some everyday activities.
What I liked about Clara's seminar was its breadth and pace. She delved into some recent history, connected with contemporary interaction design practice and then broadened the subject outwards to areas such as increasing prominence (welfare) and importance (sustainability). There was a good mix of the practical (the challenges of creating devices that will not substantially affect how an animal interacts within their environment) and the philosophical. The most important 'take away' point for me was that there is a potential to learn more by looking at things in a slightly different way.
It was also interesting to learn about collaborations with people working in different universities and disciplines. This, to me, underlined that the boundaries of what is considered to be 'computing' is continually changing as we understand the different ways in which technology can be used.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Clara for commenting on an earlier part of this blog. More information about Clara's work on Animal -Computer Interaction can be seen by viewing an Open University video clip (YouTube).