Touchscreen research at Zoo Atlanta

Touchscreen research at Zoo Atlanta

Zoos use enrichment as part of their husbandry, and it is recommended by all organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Enrichment is used to keep animals’ bodies and minds active. Orangutans are intelligent and need enrichment to stimulate their minds. Yet, budgets are tight, and many organizations do not have a large amount of money allocated. The digital components used in the project, are not expensive and the coding is not difficult. Often zookeepers use available resources and recycled objects - sacks, mirrors, balls, furniture. Zoo Atlanta uses some touchscreen items on exhibit and behind the scenes for cognition research. They range from iPads to a large touch screen “tree”.


Original scenario design had projection against wall

Original scenario design had projection against wall

Digital items are ideal because they’re easily programmed to expand on their intended use. I hope to create this with affordable technology and easy to edit code, so the enrichment can extend past the project timeline. The solution will be strongly guided by the indoor environment. The Kinect is programmed based on enclosure's characteristics, and to an extent, individual's preferences. Zoo Atlanta has two-inch mesh to separate orangutan groups and to divide the humans from the apes, which could be problematic for scenarios involving projections. It’s also worthy to note that this requires no paint clean up and could potentially create further interest in painting or digital games.


Approved Design Setup


Scenario Design

In this scenario (demos 1-7) the projected image is moved to behind the yellow line. A throw projector is used because it can accommodate tight spaces. This setup will not cast any shadows as the projector no longer needs to travel through the mesh. The projected image will be on a transportable screen of muslin at 8’ x 6’. The Kinect’s camera is able to track the orangutan, while the code is programmed to “ignore” the mesh.

Training and certifications

This project is approved by IACUC committees at Georgia Tech and Zoo Atlanta, which oversee the ethics and well-being of the research of animals.

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)

- Non-human primate, 2015-2019

- Group 2 Social / Behavioral Research Investigators and Key Personnel, 2015-2019

About Orangutans

With their high cognition levels, engineer-like curiosity, and close relation to humans, orangutans are an extraordinary user to study. Orangutans exhibit play from rambunctious spurts of energy in orangutan youth to problem-solving and puzzles in mature adults. They are critically endangered in the wild which may leave only sanctuaries and zoos as the remaining home for the future of their species.


Habitat loss is the largest threat to orangutan populations, and in little as 10 years, orangutans may be extinct in the wild.

Orangutan Individuals

Over the course of ten demos, we were able to work with six individuals, both male and female, ranging from young to the geriatric (Pelari is a 4-year-old male and Biji is a 47-year-old female). Zoo Atlanta houses many research projects and has the largest population of orangutans in the United States.

Orangutans have the second to longest childhoods in the animal world, behind humans. They are kept in family groups at Zoo Atlanta and this project worked with group comprised of a mother and her two male offspring. Miri and her two sons, Pelari and Satu were the most frequent user group, as Satu was the individual who showed the most user stay time between demos.

While one individual only interacted during one demo, he’s worth making a special note. Due to the teachings of his unique upbringing, Chantek is able to communicate with modified ASL (American Sign Language), with a lexicon of roughly 150 signs. His ability to communicate allows for an additional dimension of feedback.

Project Timeline


The goal of this project was to explore the capacitances of digital media to create an enrichment artifact that is modular and offers customization that allow it for greater attention to individual preferences and decrease of habituation. We achieved this goal by thorough iteration and participatory design but also discovered that further work should be invested in the development of the fourth iteration, the projection in the environment scenario. Developing a scenario that has enhanced interaction and is flexible to use in many environmental conditions has the most promise when looking at the behavior of the orangutans in this project. 


The largest challenge to the implementation of this project are the environmental constraints, but it also shaped the design in an attempt to create an application that can be used in various surroundings. As exhibits are redeveloped, many zoos and sanctuaries are looking at adding more multimedia components and creating interactive physical enrichment items, but the flexibility of the design used in this project can mitigate expensive alterations.

The experience with this project reinforced the importance of participatory design and the creation of applications that are flexible and easy to customize for individual tastes,


I would like to acknowledge Zoo Atlanta, zoo staff, and orangutans for their time and access. My committee has been essential: Carl DiSalvo, Marietta Danforth, Michael Nitsche, and Clint Zeagler. Other primates I would like to thank are Lynn Yakubinis, Lydia Hopper, Reggie Gazes, Mikhail Jacob, Marcus Carter, and Sarah Webber.


Chantek passed away on August 7, 2017. He is held in warm regard by visitors, volunteers, and the Zoo Atlanta staff. Personally, he is one of my favorite individuals. Chantek had charisma, humor, and I could share with him my favorite ASL sign (it's "bullshit'). I'm very honored to have worked with him, even if it was for a short time.