i-Rangutan: Orangutans Speaking Up And Speaking Out With iPads
May 10, 2012

i-Rangutan: Orangutans Speaking Up And Speaking Out With iPads

Brett Smith for RedOrbit.com

Ever been frustrated with people of a certain age who can´t seem to wrap their heads around modern technology? Now there´s more proof that using consumer electronics is easy -- so easy a monkey, or orangutan, could literally do it.

At the Miami Zoo, zookeepers looking for a different way it interact with their orangutans found that there really is an app for that. The great apes use an iPad app originally designed for autistic children to identify items they´re familiar with, and express their wants and needs through images on the tablet computer.

“We´ll ask them to identify ℠Where´s the coconut?´, and they´ll point it out,” Linda Jacobs, who oversees the zoo´s Jungle Island program, told Wired's Christina Bonnington. “We want to build from that and give them a choice in what they have for dinner – show them pictures of every vegetable we have available that day, and let them pick, giving them the opportunity to have choices.”

For years, people have used sign language to communicate with orangutans, which don´t have vocal chords or the capacity for verbal communication. The iPads offer an alternative to those apes or people who have difficulty picking up sign language. This increased ease of communication could soon allow the general public to communicate with its fellow primates.

"It's really just a matter of getting the technology and equipment here," Jacobs told the Associated Press (AP). "There's not a doubt in my mind that they could do it and would be marvelous at it, and I think the public would absolutely love it."

The capacity for communication isn´t the only thing we share in common with the great apes. A couple of orangutans of a certain age -- Connie, a 35-year-old and Sinbad, a 33-year-old -- have shown a disinterest in learning how to use the iPads.

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh I get this,'" Jacobs said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, `I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer.'"

“I like to compare the two older ones to my parents – I keep trying to get them to use an iPad and they´re just not interested. The other orangutans, though, are very excited by the tablet. They take turns getting to use it, and all run to be the first one to handle it.”

Before the zoo can expand their use of the tablets in communicating with the primates, the staff must overcome a few obstacles, including the fragility of the iPads. Currently, the orangutans are not allowed to hold the iPad themselves. If left to their own devices, the primates, like curious children, would take it apart to see what´s inside.

Jacobs also mentioned setting up a video conferencing network through a program called Orangutan Outreach that would allow the Miami apes to interact with their counterparts around the world. She mentioned that she hopes these exciting technological breakthroughs bring more awareness to the endangered animals and the conservation of their habitat.