Orangutans to Skype between zoos with iPads

By Sebastian Anthony on December 30, 2011
Source: Extreme Tech

For the last six months, orangutans — those great, hairy, orange apes that go “ook” a lot — at Milwaukee zoo have been playing games and watching videos on Apple’s (seemingly ubiquitous) iPad, but now their keepers and the charity Orangutan Outreach want to go one step further and enable ape-to-ape video chat via Skype or FaceTime.

Orangutans, like their great ape brethren (gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans), are intelligent, inquisitive creatures — and, perhaps hinting at our shared genetic ancestry, they find the shiny, bright allure of an iPad almost irresistible. So far their favorite iPad pastimes have been games like Doodle Buddy and Flick Flick Football, and watching videos. One of the orangutans, a 31-year-old called MJ, is apparently a big fan of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries. “The orangutans loved seeing videos of themselves – so there is a little vanity going on – and they like seeing videos of the orangutans who are in the other end of the enclosure,” Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach said. “So if we incorporate cameras, they can watch each other.” And thus the idea ofWiFi video chat between orangutans — and eventually between zoos — was born.

Now, this might just sound like a bit of folly — Orangutan Outreach is quick to note that these iPads were not bought with public donations — but just think of the research possibilities! Just imagine, if we put iPads into the soft, leathery mitts of orangutans all around the world… would they spontaneously strike up Skype conversations without human intervention? Gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans might not have complex speech like us, but they could still communicate via live video if the interface was simple enough (someone needs to make an iOok app!) The great apes are our closest relatives, and everything we discover about their behavior increases our knowledge of how our own brains and physiology evolved.

Ultimately, putting (ruggedized!) iPads in the hands of our fellow hominids serves another purpose too: Orangutan Outreach hopes that by seeing these sentient, self-aware, and intelligent animals playing with the same gadgets as us — by reducing the gap between man and monkey — we’ll be more inclined to support their charity, and also to take better care of the environment (Indonesian orangutans are critically endangered due to human activity).

In related news, the iPad is also being used to understand and communicate with dolphins — and because it’s a particularly slow news day, I thought you might like a video of a zoo keeper rolling around a cage with a gorilla, trying to make her laugh… ostensibly in the name of research, but it comes across as a bit creepy.