Elephants in captivity face several challenges – from not getting enough exercise (potentially leading to weight gain and foot problems) to not having enough stimulation to prevent them from getting bored. Addressing these problems is not always an easy task, as there is limited space in zoos and often few other elephants to interact with. Because of this, researchers have recently begun to question – could interactive technology provide elephants with fresh stimulation?

Investigating this Fiona French (from London Metropolitan University), Dr Clara Mancini, and Professor Helen Sharp (both from the Open University) have created several interactive prototypes for one particular elephant, Valli, who lives in an ashram in Wales. In this work, the researchers hope that computers can empower elephants by allowing them to express control over their environment through interactive toys. 

Elephant playing with the slider Photo: Fiona French

As Fiona notes ‘It was beyond the scope of our work with captive elephants to replicate the experience of living in the wild. We couldn’t scale up their enclosures or create herds where there were none, but we hoped we could design some enrichment that supported their welfare by offering suitable sensory and cognitive stimulation. So, we focused on designing systems that would offer the elephants an opportunity to demonstrate some of their natural behaviours, rather than trying to create a setting that resembled their natural habitat. Our animal expert colleagues confirm that games and interactive devices can play an important role in stimulating species-specific behaviours in many animals, so our ethical position is that trying to develop these kinds of systems is always acceptable, if it is done in ‘good faith’ – in other words, with the broad aim of increasing the animal’s welfare, whatever its circumstances.   

For these interaction systems, Fiona recommends auditory and tactile interfaces to engage elephants since hearing and touch are extremely sensitive senses for them. Building on this, the scientists have recently explored the aesthetics of different devices, looking at materials used for crafting (e.g. rope, copper, plastic, wood), different kinds of outputs (e.g. water, acoustics), and different ways the elephants could interact with systems. These prototypes included pipe buttons that activated different noises, haptic interfaces made with knitted textiles and vibrating motors, a giant switch made from a sewing machine pedal, and a huge slider control for changing the quality of a sound. From this exploration, research revealed that elephants preferred things that moved. 

Different tactical conductive controls for elephants. Photo: Fiona French
Slider attached to balcony for elephants. Photo: Fiona French.

One of the many challenges of working with an animal as large and strong and curious as an elephant is how to make things safe. As Fiona comments ‘Framing buttons in strong frames seems to work well for a robust fitting in a typical elephant enclosure – elephants love a bit of destruction, but heavy wooden controls bolted to the fence survived multiple encounters with male African elephants as well as female Asian elephants in our tests.

To design appropriate systems for elephants, Fiona says that there need to be clear enrichment goals that the system meets. These goals should be discussed with the animals’ caretaker so that there are shared objectives and measurable outputs. Additionally, the team aims towards sustainable, eco-friendly and open-source solutions. These are also shared goals we would argue for the future of computing! 

Figuring out how an elephant wishes to use, or interact with a computer system though is still a hard question. As Fiona notes, one of the biggest challenges was not in the interface design, but instead around figuring out what types of systems animals would be interested in playing with  “We wanted to appreciate the environment from an animal-centred perspective. As a result, when we crafted something that the elephants actually wanted to spend time playing with, that was a huge reward for us, even if they didn’t use the device in the way we expected.”

Elephant playing with rope device. Photo: Fiona French

In the future, Fiona plans to explore further prototypes, and measure their usage, to discover more about how technology can support the development of enrichment for elephants. It is hoped that this research can lead to a deeper understanding of their sensory, emotional, and intellectual needs, ensuring a better life experience for future elephants, whether they live in captivity or in the wild. 

You can read more about Fiona’s work at her blog http://toys4elephants.blogspot.com/, view her recent talk on YouTube at the Designing Interactive Systems conference and follow her publications on Google Scholar

Fiona French, Clara Mancini, and Helen Sharp. 2020. More Than Human Aesthetics: Interactive Enrichment for Elephants. In Proceedings of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ’20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1661–1672. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3357236.3395445