From Wand to Screen – OKC Zoo’s Orangutan Creates Digital Art NFTs for Conservation Thru Innovative Animal Enrichment

I’m Becky Scheel with the design team, Megafauna Studios. Thanks for having me as your guest blogger. I have worked in zoos for ten years, so I'm excited to work with The Oklahoma City Zoo on The Elok Collection, a unique collection of digital art NFTs designed by the OKC Zoo’s male Sumatran orangutan, Elok, 21. The project marries my previous grad school research with digital enrichment and orangutans and fundraising efforts for conservation. Enrichment helps keep animals' minds and bodies active, and the research around digital enrichment is growing in the field called animal-computer interaction (ACI). My partner and I pitched the proposal to OKC Zoo and started working with their talented team.

We began by asking Elok's animal caretakers about his personality and preferences. Does he have a favorite color? Is there an activity he enjoys and, conversely, things he dislikes? With my thesis project, I found that individual preference is essential when creating applications for orangutans. With their high cognition levels, engineer-like curiosity, and close relation to humans, orangutans are extraordinary. Orangutans exhibit play to problem-solving and have a knack for reverse engineering an object to smithereens.

We learned that while Elok has no color preferences, he enjoys bubbles and interacting with his caretakers. We then set up a time to see him paint a physical painting, to observe any noticeable things to carry into our work. While you can't interview an orangutan, you can look for behaviors to measure when testing enrichment, including stay time, attention, and if the animal exhibits stereotypic behavior (things we want to avoid, like pacing). It's also essential to work closely with the individual animal's primary caretaker because their insight is invaluable; thanks to Pace Frank, OKC Zoo’s assistant curator of primates, for her effort in guiding us with Elok!

Image: The design of the digital painting enrichment includes a movement-tracking camera that projects a visualization on a screen opposite the orangutan. This setup is modular and can be easily tweaked to meet the layout of the physical space. The PVC paintbrush extender was changed to have a KONG toy at the end instead of a paintbrush.

We went back and redesigned a handful of applications featuring bubbles and included some personalization, including photos of him and Negara. These applications acted as a warm-up for the new digital painting scenario, so Elok could understand that his motion was being represented on the screen without physical contact. While the painting application used the same paintbrush holder as the physical painting, the fact that this way of "painting" was done on a screen several feet away is new for Elok and is making a sizeable cognitive leap. Elok did watch the screen and had the opportunity to participate or not at any time, and continued to give us his attention while receiving treats like animal crackers and prunes from his caretaker while we were there. Through adjusting to his preferences and the physical space, we worked with Elok over a few hours as he moved his brush and made the 21-piece Elok Collection.

To learn more about Elok and this project visit www.okczoo.org/NFT. View the complete Elok Collection and purchase one of these one-of-a-kind digital art NFTs at Opensea.io

- Becky Scheel, Megafauna Studios

 

 

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