Virtual reality has been a science fiction dream for decades, and nowadays we are able to experience these alternate universes in a rudimentary form – but have you ever wondered if this technology might benefit animals? One Russian dairy farm has, and it is testing virtual reality headsets on cows. The experiment was announced by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Moscow Region, which suggests that improving the cows’ quality of life can benefit milk production – and that VR goggles may complement other, more well-established relaxation aids such as classical music and massage brushes. “Examples of dairy farms from different countries show that in a calm atmosphere, the quantity, and sometimes the quality, of milk increases markedly,” said the ministry.
Virtual reality architects have programmed a summer field simulation based on previous studies about bovine vision, and, according to the ministry, researchers recorded “a decrease in anxiety and an increase in the overall emotional mood of the herd.” Some, however, have questioned whether a simple headset can provide enough sensory information to compare with what a creature would receive in a real-life environment – such as a genuine summer field with its associated scents and rich variety of sensations.
Austin Stewart, inventor of Second Livestock, a “Virtual Free Range™” simulation for chickens, asked, “Will animals actually accept a virtual world as readily as we do, or is there some level of intelligence or imagination that needs to happen where we can suspend disbelief more readily than a chicken can?” in a Vox interview. “I don’t know.” Second Livestock aims to give chickens an impression of a free-range life. Within the program, “Chickens are free to roam, socialize and ‘eat’ virtual food, which appears in the virtual world where their real food trays are located,” states the company’s website.
Cows and chickens are not the only animal species being subjected to virtual reality – neuroscientists are already putting mice and rats in VR simulations to study brain activity, while researchers at the University of Washington are performing similar experiments to study memory in monkeys.
Australian researchers into “digital enrichment” for animals in captivity suggested in a recent article for The Conversation that animals themselves have shown little interest in technology for the purpose of entertainment. Interestingly, however, seeing orangutans use digital devices boosted humans’ empathy for the creatures. It makes one wonder – how much is technology now wrapped up in how we see ourselves and the creatures that surround us?