By Anna McHugh

A common argument in favour of zoos is that they fulfil key human behaviours, particularly our desire to learn and to have contact with the things we’re learning about.

Unfortunately, this often amounts to misery for the animals kept in captivity. It also causes distress for people, including young children, who are themselves unhappy about witnessing the state of animals in captivity.

Yet now technology is beginning to provide ways to satisfy our desire to learn about animals, to have a kind of contact with them, and yet to leave them where they should be—in the wild, unbothered by people.

Augmented reality vs. virtual reality

This technology is augmented reality. Most people are familiar with virtual reality (VR), where the real world around you is replaced by a digitally-generated world. In these virtual worlds, amazing things can happen because the animators, designers, and programmers who create them aren’t bound by social or physical rules.

We typically come into contact with VR through videogames and movies (arguably all movies create ‘virtual’ worlds, but the term usually makes us think of movies like The Matrix or What Dreams May Come). In relation to humane education, VR offers interesting (though so far fairly marginal) possibilities—students can create worlds in which to explore what the world would be like without animals, or with catastrophic pollution. Although it’s often accused of fuelling teenage violence and promoting social isolation, VR can reveal worlds which we hope never to face, and convince people to act before they reach that point.

Augmented reality is different. It’s the real world with a whole lot of exciting aspects digitally added in.

Here’s a simple example: you’re taking a student group on a nature walk to a national park. You’re trying to explain to them that several million years ago there was a huge lake here where pterodactyls swooped and diplodocus grazed by the waterside. They look a bit unconvinced, so you bring out your tablet and hold the camera up, capturing the trees and rocks around you. An augmented reality app morphs the landscape shown by the camera into the lake which used to be there. Suddenly a pterodactyl swoops down, screeching for food. The kids all scream and look up from the screen…but the pterodactyl’s not there—in the reality around them. It’s that reality plus the digital content added by the designer.

augmented reality zoos

Arctic experience brought to Cityplaza in Hong Kong (

Brave new possibilities

That’s interesting, you say, but it’s not much different from watching a movie. You’re still separated from the magical ‘augmented’ bits by being on the other side of the screen. Except that you can be in it too—if a student were on the other side of the screen, as part of the reality captured by the camera, the augmented pterodactyl would interact with that child too. And if you recorded what the tablet’s camera captured, you’d have a movie showing your ‘augmented’ nature walk: a modern day national park with a prehistoric lake where a Year 5 was carried off by a pterodactyl.

How does that help the student to learn, though?

Memory is a funny thing: remember that great birthday party you went to as a child, when you and your cousin ate too much cake and laughed until you passed out? Not if it never happened. But if someone photoshops an image showing you and your cousin, some birthday cake and a party in the background, your brain puts together things that you already know and constructs a ‘memory’ of it. (It’s actually called confabulation and we do it all the time). It may not have happened, in the real autobiographical sense of the word, but the memory ‘exists’ nonetheless and—this is the important bit—functions as a genuine learning object from which we can make more knowledge.

Augmented reality is like that. When we look at ourselves on a screen, apparently ‘interacting’ with a pterodactyl, we put together all the things we know about creatures which are large, fierce, reptilian, and so on. We construct a sensory memory which approximates how that experience might have felt. And the more times we watch the movie of ourselves, the more firmly impressed into our memory that idea is. Voila—the desire for contact with a creature is satisfied, as is our need for a learning experience to feed our information-hungry brains. But we have also preserved the essential distance between ourselves and something which was never meant to interact with humans.

This includes polar bears, walruses, orcas, and the many other marine creatures which really do suffer from being kept in unnatural, highly stressful environments like marine or ocean parks where they’re forced to perform for audiences. (If you’re in doubt about this, read about it here.)

Thanks to augmented reality, though, people can see themselves ‘interacting’ with wild marine creatures in environments more conducive to modern man than animals. Have a look at the video below for an example. Notice the people’s behaviour: play ‘boxing’ with a polar bear; stretching out their hands to touch dolphins; flash-photographing a walrus.

These would all be stressful, even cruel, for real animals, but in the environment of a shopping mall, people who experience much of their lives through the medium of their phone or tablet can interact with marine creatures in a way that’s harmful to none and helpful to them.

And afterwards, when they watch the movie of themselves patting the walrus, or stroking a polar bear, their brains will supply the necessary sensory information to render the ‘memory’ more detailed and meaningful. As the memory becomes more deeply embedded, the idea that the source event was ‘unreal’ ceases to matter. The brain has had a learning experience; the cultural person has been titillated by novelty and the fiction of an autobiographical highlight. They learn from it exactly as they would a day at a more ethically-problematic place like Sea World.

It’s unlikely that the majority of people, addicted to fast, cheap, easy ways of consuming experience, will accept that there’s a necessary distance between our world and the dwindling wild. That kind of discipline, austerity, and sense of propriety no longer exists in mass culture because it doesn’t lead to profit or novelty. But technology, so often the plaything which degrades us by tiny increments, may actually be beneficial this time—for human and non-human animals alike.

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