The first time I met Michelle Colombinary Westerlaken was at the 2015 edition of Game Happens in Genova, Italy. Then a master student at the University of Malmö, in Sweden, she brought somewhat of an odd concept to the attention of the crowd.

The Dutch researcher spoke of her experiences with developing around animals. She then showed us Felino: a tablet game she had been working on with a colleague. The results of their efforts would eventually be tested at a local cat shelter.

Today, Michelle Westerlaken – on her way through the second year of her PhD- teaches at the same institution and still works with her pets. We at The Indie Toaster broke radio silence and posed a few questions about her peculiar field of expertise!

The Uncharted World Of ACI

“Animal Computer Interaction includes a quite recent field of research that investigates the interactions that animals have with technology. On a broad
scale, it deals with the relationships between animals, humans, and
technology”. This is exactly what she told us when we asked her to explain her work.

Westerlaken also added how, in practical terms, the field is centered around more active interactions between animals and artificial constructs. Humanity pinned gadgets to their livestock’s skins for years; it’s now time for these devices to be designed for; together; and with them.

Play-Testing With A Live Cat Showed Promising Results!

We spoke of her past projects and the success that was Felino . I still remember how Twitch shut down her 24/7 stream of an ant colony last year.  As part of her research, Westerlaken had  set the whole thing up to collect data. The idea was to ask designers to produce escape rooms for the insects and keep an eye on how humans would adapt to the oddity of this new task.

As fascinating as it may be, ACI  still struggles to evolve into something bigger than an academic field of research. We asked Michelle what the future of Animal Computer Interaction holds and received two interesting predictions. Both were rather ominous.

“On the one hand I think that the future of animals and interactive
entertainment looks quite dystopian. Our society shows very little concern
for the lives of animals”. A considerable amount of people still consider some of these creatures as inferiors. It is unlikely that large funding will ever be dedicated to the field.

Soon to be Dr. Westerlaken doesn’t lose hope, though. Her interest in the notion of speciesism – the discrimination, exploitation or abuse of animals – enables her to foresee a brighter scene. “I wish that animals and humans could live in more mutually respectful relationships with each other in which we
don’t see them as a resource”, she quickly adds.

So.. When Can We Buy One?

Look near any finished product and you’ll find a someone ready to sell it to you. Similarly, plenty of others will want to put their hands on a copy. Some of the results of ACI already made it hour homes. Automatic feeders and remote-controlled toys, for instance, are the perfect example of what these people can achieve.

Yet Michelle doesn’t seem entirely convinced of the commercial applications of her findings. She does mention other research that was possible thanks to some of these gadgets, but also expresses concern. She fears that “in general, these kinds of
developments will mostly allow us to exploit animals more efficiently”.

Speciesism steps back into the arena. In a world where animals are mainly seen as a source for nourishment and entertainment, the dancing monkey effect poses a considerable risk. Mass production would likely provide entrepreneurs and humanity as a whole with new weapons to turn against these beings.

For now, it’s a good idea to put the secrets back under lock and key. Other scientists will be able to use them – perhaps better them – while keeping them safe. Were humanity’s approach to shift, new applications can always be tested and implemented later!

In Conclusion

Speciesism  and supremacism – whether among animals or human beings – has long been up for debate. Specific individuals will always believe to be, in some shape or form, better than others. This could further hinder the progress of Animal Computer Interaction, both inside and outside of academia.

Nevertheless, Westerlaken’s research shows us how far gaming and the medium have come in the past few years. At first a niche form of entertainment, videogames are now used as a tool for research, development, and evolution. Makes us wonder what is still lying in the dark vacuum beyond human knowledge!

 

We’d like to thank Michelle  Westerlaken for her time, kindness, and co-operation! If you want to know more about what makes her research tick, check her blog out! 

Most of the pictures used within this article belong to Michelle herself.


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