Kinect brings enrichment to zoo orangutans

Orangutans have long fascinated people by their humanlike behaviors (the name “orangutan” actually means “man of the forest” in Malay). These great apes not only share 97 percent of our DNA, they also mirror such human characteristics as social interaction, child nurturing, and curiosity—which is why it’s no big surprise that they enjoy a good game, as the zookeepers at Zoos Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, can attest.


Digital games provide additional enrichment opportunities to the zoo’s orangutans. For the past couple of years, the apes have had access to tablet computers, but only through wire mesh, which protected the devices from the inquisitive animals’ incredibly strong hands. But the zoo’s animal welfare specialist Sally Sherwen wanted to enable the orangutans to use the movements of their entire body to interact with technology, and to have the opportunity to do so whenever they choose. From this desire, came a collaboration between the zoo and the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI)—a collaboration that uses Kinect for Windows to enable the orangutans to control the games with their body movements and to play them whenever they want.

“What we’re trying to do here is enhance the enrichment the orangutans are provided here at the zoo,” says SocialNUI’s Sarah Webber. “We’ve set up a projector outside of the enclosure, and that projects into the enclosure an interface or screen that the orangutans can interact with. To enable that, we’ve got a Microsoft Kinect sensor sitting outside the enclosure that detects the orangutans’ movements.”

Software developer Zaher Joukhadar, a Research Fellow at SocialNUI, describes the setup. “The installation consists of a Kinect v2 [Kinect for Xbox One] sensor, a short range projector, and a PC,” he explains. “The projector projects a game on the floor inside the orangutan enclosure; the Kinect sensor, with its superior depth sensing and 3D mapping technologies, detects touches on the projected surface and sends data to the game.”

By using the Kinect for Windows SDK 2.0, Joukhadar and his colleagues developed software to receive and process the raw depth data, which they use to detect and track touches on the projected surface.

“The Kinect does not need to be placed looking straight down to the projected surface,” says Joukhadar. “It can be placed anywhere, looking at any angle, around the projected surface, provided it always maintains a line of sight to the whole projected surface and at a distance no more than 4.5 meters to the farthest point on the projected surface.”

All of this technical wizardry creates a unique experience for the orangutans and zoo visitors alike. Visitors can watch the apes as they eagerly interact with the projected game by touching game objects with their hands or lips, and by placing physical items, such leaves and bits of tarpaulin, on the projected images. The more exuberant players use their entire bodies, rolling around over the projected game screen or positioning themselves to have the game projected on their body.

The zoo’s researchers are delighted with the early results of the Kinect-enabled experience. Knowing that the orangutans generally enjoy social interaction, the researchers are eager to use the game application to study how the orangutans will interact with humans when they—the apes—are in control of that interaction.

And here we thought Kinect gaming was just for people!

The Kinect for Windows Team

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