Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Skanda Vale social visit

Valli's tyre toys
We stopped off at Skanda Vale for a social visit on the way back from Fishguard to London.

Valli seemed to show pleasure at meeting my kids again - rumbling a lot and sniffing them. Stefan commented that she likes children because they have no fear and is apparently quite tolerant of dogs. However, Skomer (our terrier) revealed herself to be as terrified of elephants as she had been enthusiastic about rabbits in Cork. Although the smells were interesting, a glimpse of the great Valli sent her scuttling behind legs and tugging her lead away.

My kids spent some time hiding treats (fruit and veg) for Valli inside the piles of tyres in her shed.  Stefan said he had given up on shower controls because she didn't seem interested in using them, but that he would like to try some enrichment with different smells.  We agreed to find some time soon to try some more toys.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

ACI 2016 Conference

Screenshot from
I attended this year's ACI conference at The Open University, presenting a paper: "Exploring methods for interaction design with animals: a case study with Valli" and taking part in the doctoral consortium, where I received some useful and encouraging feedback.

With international colleagues, I also organised a ZooJam workshop where participants worked in teams with tight deadlines to develop some enrichment concepts for hunting animals.  We were given briefs for penguins, sea lions and big cats - the ZooJam website ( explains the context and has links to media files showing the various outputs.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Noahs Ark elephant radio

Janu and Machanga try out the elephant radio

Janu plays by himelf
At first, Janu and Machanga walked straight past the elephant radio, and we realised it was installed above eye-level.  However, when Janu moved across the enclosure and looked back, he saw there was something new and came immediately to investigate.  Machanga followed shortly afterwards and they both triggered the audio.

Machanga left quite quickly, but Janu stayed to test the radio some more.

The data logger didn't work (boo) but there was some night footage of the elephants interacting with the buttons again at about 2am.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Noahs Ark audio installation

Ashley Bryant helping fix the acoustic buttons
Final buttons from inside enclosure
Ashley and I installed the buttons inside Noahs Ark elephant enclosure between 11-1, when the animals are kept outside.

Initially, the system was working, and we were able to film the elephants coming into contact with it for the first time.  However, although it was clear they could use the interface and were naturally drawn to explore the surface, the device did not work consistently.  It stopped, and needed to be reset a few times, but then when triggered, one of the buttons played continuously before stopping (it is supposed to only play when there is contact with the sensor).  I suspect that the large amount of metal in the enclosure is having an effect on the cap sensing.

Diagram for keepers
I left a diagram to show keepers how to change batteries and switch system off if it stopped working properly, although I asked them to keep the Arduino charged so we could continue to use the datalogger.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Making radio buttons

This month has been all about designing and constructing the elephant radio system that we plan to install at Noah's Ark Zoo.  It's tricky, because there are quite a few considerations to take into account.

There won't be a mains supply, so one of the challenges is designing a system that can be battery powered for a week.  This means I can't use PIR or ultra-sonic sensors, which use up a lot of juice, pinging all the time while they wait for an interrupt.

I plan to do some data-tracking, but the data logger shield ( uses many of the Arduino pins, so I need a system that works on top of this simultaneously.

I opted to go for capacitance sensing again, this time using a shield ( that re-calibrates every time it is reset and also manages some simple filtering of the signal to avoid interference.  I was able to add both shields to Arduino Uno and use six sensors to trigger separate audio files from a simple sound board. (

Prototype hardware system
The system relies on 3 different charging systems - the Arduino uses a USB-5V/1A bank; the sound board needs 3x AA (4.5V) and the amplifier+speakers uses 4x AAA (6V).


Lisa and Ashley wanted to do a test with elephants whereby they are offered control over sounds that play - using the same sounds that were tested in a previous study at Blair Drummond.  In that study, the elephants were played 3 different sounds (whale song, classical music and heartbeat) and their responses were noted.  I asked which classical music track was used, but was not able to clarify this. 

Intuitively, the nature of the music seems to me to be important - eg. Brahms v Wagner - hardly the same kind of noise.  I checked online and found some footage and stories about both zoo-housed and sanctuary elephants apparently listening to and enjoying live musicians playing classical tracks:

Sandra at Noahs Ark had explained that they might need to separate the young bulls, in which case we should have two identical systems so they could each have the opportunity to play.

Lisa said it might be appropriate to play elephant noises to the elephants (although I had been advised earlier not to do this) so I checked for some "playful" sounds that elephants had made in a happy context, finding a selection of low rumble-coos, made by mothers to pacify their offspring.  Then Lisa suggested we should drop heartbeat in favour of a classical track.

In the end, I selected [1] rumble-coo; [2] humpback whale song; [3] short clip from Bach D Min for 2 violins.  

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Playful UX for Elephants

Elephants at Dublin Zoo
This week I went to Dublin for Measuring Behavior 2016, to take part in the ACI symposium, which was jointly organised by Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas from University of Central Lancashire with Anton Nijholt, Patricia Pons and Adrian D. Cheok.  Ilyena has blogged the event in detail here:

I presented "Playful UX for Elephants":

ABSTRACT: This case study describes approaches to the challenge of designing interfaces for an elephant that enable her to control playful systems in her enclosure, for the purpose of enriching her environment. Our contribution to the symposium will showcase the progress of the enrichment toys and explain in detail how we have collected feedback during participatory design sessions with our play-tester Valli, a female Asian elephant. We have attempted to gain information about her enthusiasm for interacting with different systems and also establish how effectively she can use different interfaces by measuring her responses during the sessions.

While I was in Dublin, I visited the zoo and met Gerry Creighton, the Operations Manager, who showed me round and discussed what kinds of enrichment he envisaged for his herd.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Noah's Ark Elephant Eden

Location for acoustic enrichment system above water troughs
Ashley and I went to Bristol, to visit the Noah's Ark elephant facility and speak to the head keeper about installing some acoustic enrichment over the summer.

It was a productive trip - the set-up for elephants is great, offering opportunities to attach a button-operated system to wire between steel bars inside the shed.  Sandra, the head keeper, was very enthusiastic and helpful.  Ashley will be doing some observational studies from the balcony, where she can attach a video camera.

Janu and Machanga browsing together
There are 2 African males at Noah's Ark - Janu (10) and Machanga (7), from Port Lynne and Sweden.  Because they are still young, they sometimes become aggressive and have to be separated at night.  Ideally, Sandra would like to keep them together and free to roam outside or inside during the day and night.  In case they need to be kept inside and separated at night, we will install 2 systems in the enclosure, one on each side of a dividing fence.  This would mitigate against competition, as they could both access the device.  But it's not a scalable solution.