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Underwater Touchpad Will Open Window Further Into the Dolphin Mind
Jun 2017
NEW YORK, June 13, 2017 — An underwater computer touchscreen, through which dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore are able to interact, will be used to investigate dolphin intelligence and communication by providing the sea mammals with choice and control over a number of activities. The eight-foot touchscreen features specialized dolphin-friendly “apps” and a symbolic keyboard to provide the dolphins with opportunities to interact with the system. The animals’ touch is detected optically; to make the system safe for the dolphins, the touchscreen has been installed outside an underwater viewing window.

Interactive touchscreen for dolphin gamers, Rockefeller University.

The eight-foot underwater touchscreen features specialized dolphin-friendly “apps” and a symbolic keyboard to provide the dolphins — which are intelligent and highly social — with opportunities to interact with the system. Courtesy of the Marine Mammal Communication and Cognition Collaboration.

In addition to the touchscreen, the dolphins' habitat at the National Aquarium has been outfitted with equipment to record their behavior and vocalizations as they encounter and begin to use the technology.

“We want to monitor whether the dolphins integrate novel elements from touchpad interactions, such as acoustical signals, into their daily repertoire, to which end we have installed an array of underwater microphones and video cameras,” said Sean Woodward, a researcher at Rockefeller University.

Researcher Ana Hocevar, who built the hardware and programmed its functionality, said that, “The interactive system was designed to engage the dolphins without requiring explicit training. It is an open system in which the dolphins’ use of the touchscreen will shape how the system evolves.”

The scientists have begun to introduce the dolphins to some of the system’s interactive apps, so the animals can explore on their own how touching the screen results in specific contingencies.

“Without any explicit training or encouragement from us, one of the younger dolphins, Foster, spontaneously showed immediate interest and expertise in playing a dolphin version of Whack-a-Mole, in which he tracks and touches moving fish on the touchscreen,” said Diana Reiss, a professor at Hunter College.

“Using methods from statistical physics to analyze dolphin communication will open the door to understand how other animals communicate, which could be a game-changer in understanding how even human language originated,” said Krastan Blagoev, the program director for the National Science Foundation's Physics of Living Systems program, which funded the research. “Projects like this not only enable science, but excite the next generation to think about science.”

The eight-foot underwater touchscreen provides the dolphins with opportunities to interact with the system. Courtest of the Marine Mammal Communication and Cognition Collaboration.

Research & TechnologyeducationAmericasimagingDisplaysopticscamerasenvironmentmarine mammal behaviordolphin behavior

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