Virtual Reality Could Improve Chickens' Quality of Life

Second Livestock brings virtual reality to farm animals, making chickens feel as though they are freely roaming pastoral plains. But the company's real message is for human beings.
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Second Livestock brings virtual reality to farm animals, making chickens feel as though they are freely roaming pastoral plains. But the company's real message is for human beings.
Second Livestock

Virtual Reality is being used to improve the quality of life of farm animals. Austin Stewart, as assistant professor at Iowa State University, demonstrated last month how a virtual reality 3D gaming headset, made by Oculus Rift, can help to enrich the lives of farm animals who are often confined to small spaces. You just strap the headset onto a chicken and make it feel as though it is free range.

"It's really pastoral,” Stewart said to Fast Company. "There's waving grass, a few trees, and some artificial intelligence chickens wandering around as well."

The next version of the Oculus Rift headset will include features like positional head tracking, which will allow users to crane their necks at different angles.

"The new version allows you to do that," he said. "You can look for bugs on the ground, peck to get food, and really get that chicken experience."

But Stewart isn't as committed to improving the lives of farm animals as he wants you to believe. Second Livestock is actually Stewart's way to better understand how technology is impacting human lives.

"It's as much about animal husbandry as it is about human husbandry," Stewart said. "We live in little boxes, we work in little boxes, and then we're engaging in these virtual environments more. Why wouldn't chickens choose the same thing?"

On the Second Livestock website, you'll find a section call "New Distribution Model." This model includes a Waste Zero Facility where chickens equipped with virtual reality headsets will live in urban skyscrapers. Their waste will be turned into fertilizer and sensors will allow producers to keep track of individual chicken activity.

"After all, Second Livestock is modeled on human activities such as the layout of the common corporate office," the Second Livestock website reads.

"A networked grid of cubicles with Internet access is not far removed from the enclosures we build for our chickens. However, our chickens likely get more exercise while on the job."

Stewart says he doesn't hate new technologies, he simply thinks humans need to think harder about how we are using it.

"I think we need to carefully evaluate whether this direction is a good direction to go for our species," he said. "It's not so much that [virtual reality] is lacking humanity as it's creating these really safe environments where we're not actually exposed to anything harmful, which I don't think would actually be really good for us."

Stewart is taking Second Livestock to Iowa's Farm Progress this summer. He added that if there are scientists out there who are interested in testing the headsets on chickens, he'd be open to the idea.

"As long as the chickens at the end of the research period could live a good life, and not just be culled."

Watch a teaser for Second Livestock below.