The eye-tracking device outlined and designed by Georgia Tech researchers provide an affordable technology that allows for reliable detection and ability to process in real-time.  While eye tracking is not a new device, creating one that is cost-effective provides nonprofits, such as zoos, new means to explore new uses for the technology.

Animals react to their environment through many senses: by smell and scent marking, listening and projecting calls, and even perceiving electromagnetic waves. Humans have been fascinated by how animals perceive the world in which we share. Zoo staff uses that curiosity and supplement with research to help provide healthier and happier lives for the animals in their care.

For instance, rhinos are thought to have poor vision, derived from anecdotal encounters with humans. A photographer may be able to get very close to one, provided they are still and blend in with neighboring rocks and shrubs.  However, there has been a lack of studies or science to back up the assumption of poor vision. Utilizing technology can help formalize hypothesis and provide better insights into providing better stimuli – in zoos or even in how we approach rhinos in the wild- the shape and color of gear, vehicles, and clothing.

Animals are often anthropomorphized, where we attach human-like characteristics and concepts. To better care for animals, zoo staff looks for ways to better adhere to species specific needs, instead of relying on human perception and preference. While there are studies providing information on an animal’s perception, there is still much we do not know about how they perceive the world. Having a method of real-time monitoring can provide feedback for their assumptions. The perspective will give their caregivers a small glimpse into their world, in hopes that it will guide them to better choices for the animal’s care, husbandry, diets, and needs. 

Design

Zoo View provides a glimpse into the animal's perception of their world. Using a head-mounted eye tracking devices paired with a camera on a wearable device, the device is able to provide the viewpoint of the individual. 

The device
Through many years of research and development, we have created several headset designs, each using Zoo View technology designed to fit specific species. The headset is created by a 3D printer and is designed to the species detailed profile to provide maximum comfort. The eye-tracking device uses structured infrared lighting, to track the species gaze, providing first-hand feedback. The eye-tracker is paired with a forward facing camera to coordinate the view from the animal's eye.

The Zoo's white rhino, Andazi, wears the Zoo View device

Case Study: Andazi the white rhino

Zookeepers at the Zoo were concerned that Andazi’s behavior lately. Her recent health check-up was satisfactory, but she seemed disinterested in her usual enrichment activities, such as the puzzle feeder. The zookeepers used Zoo View to see what areas of her habitat were providing more visual interest. Through monitoring her usual visual patterns of interest, they were able to build on popular structures, such as putting brushes and smells on a fallen tree. They’re then able to track in real-time to see which additions held her visual attention.

Rhino's habitat view, without heat map

Rhino's habitat view, without heat map

Who is it for?
Eye tracking provides powerful insight how animals view their surrounds, be it mates, food, predators, and environmental factors. Researchers are also able to look at cognition. This vantage point is valuable to captive management personnel such as the husbandry staff but is also beneficial to horticulturalists, veterinarians, researchers, and exhibit designers.

The heat map showed us that the rhino’s gaze often focused on the neighboring habitat’s tree structure, just as much as the gaze followed the zebra. While we know that their vision is fairly week, we were intrigued and added additional tree structures to their habitat.
— Raja Paxton, PhD, Curator of Mammals
Zoo staff monitor the eye tracker and camera in real-time

Zoo staff monitor the eye tracker and camera in real-time


Reference Material

Georgia Tech Technical Report: Detecting and Tracking Eyes By Using Their Physiological Properties, Dynamics, and Appearance

Zoo monitor image – Smithsonian National Zoo – Tim Flach

Rhino enrichment

Rhino vision