updated 02:08 pm EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
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The orangutan handlers at the Miami Zoo are testing out a new method of communicating with the captive orange apes. Trainers at Jungle Island are getting the apes to interact with simplistic apps on Apple iPads, opening new possibilities for human-orangutan interaction. So far, as the Sun Sentinel reports, the younger apes are taking to the technology quickly, while the older orangutans appear less interested.
Trainers began by allowing the apes to see the tablets with the screens turned off. Once the orangutans were used to the devices, the trainers turned on the screens, displaying software originally designed for humans with autism. The apes interact with an app that displays pictures of various objects. A trainer names an object, and the orangutan taps corresponding image.
The trainers, who are accepting donations of older iPads to expand the project, believe the technology can be used to improve communication between them and the orangutans, allowing the apes to respond to simple questions or identify regions of the body that are in pain. They also foresee the potential for greater interaction between the orangutans and zoo visitors.
For now, though, the iPad project is a work in progress. The screens are still a bit too small for the apes to use them with great accuracy, and too fragile for the trainers to let the orangutans actually handle them. The touchscreens also don't register inputs when the apes touch them with their fingernails. The younger apes, at least, do appear interested in learning the technology, even if the older ones don't; so the trainers are using the iPads to keep the orangutans from becoming too bored in their zoo enclosures.