Last month, Austin Stewart gave a rather unique virtual reality demonstration at a storefront in Ames, Iowa. With a wall TV display, an Oculus Rift headset, and yoga ball trackpad, the Iowa State University assistant professor showed how virtual reality could enrich the inner lives of farm animals confined to small spaces. Strap an Oculus Rift headset onto a chicken, and it’s free range, you see. In its mind.
"It’s really pastoral," Stewart says of the Second Livestock world, inspired by humans’ Second Life, and first reported by the Ames Tribune. "There’s waving grass, a few trees, and some artificial intelligence chickens wandering around as well."
With the trackpad, participants were able to mimic the pace of chicken feet with their fingers. Stewart’s also very excited about the next version of the Oculus Rift headset, which will allow for positional head tracking, or craning your neck at different angles. "The new version allows you to do that," he says. "You can look for bugs on the ground, peck to get food, and really get that chicken experience."
Okay, so Stewart’s not being totally serious, and contrary to his business pitch, Second Livestock will probably not be coming to a farm near you. But if you happened to have attended his straight-faced, TED Talk-y presentations—which, so far, have been delivered to students at Ohio State University and Iowa farmers—you’d likely have trouble telling. And that’s how Stewart likes it. "Don’t you think the chickens will lose something by not being in physical contact with each other?" one participant asked earnestly. Which then brought Stewart, and the room, closer to his true thesis: How technology impacts the lives of humans.
"It’s as much about animal husbandry as it is about human husbandry," says Stewart. "We live in little boxes, we work in little boxes, and then we’re engaging in these virtual environments more. Why wouldn’t chickens choose the same thing?"
Second Livestock’s online marketing materials echo that sentiment. Part of Second Livestock’s "new distribution model" features something called a Waste Zero facility, in which chickens with VR headsets are housed in giant urban skyscrapers and waste is recycled into fertilizer. Sensors attached to the chickens can also alert producers and consumers to individual chicken activity in digital chicken heaven.
"After all, Second Livestock is modeled on human activities such as the layout of the common corporate office," the marketing copy reads. "A networked grid of cubicles with Internet access is not far removed from the enclosures we build for our chickens. However, our chickens likely get more exercise while on the job."
Stewart’s past projects have also looked at the utility, as well as the absurdity, of some technical solutions to complex human problems. He’s built a gardening robot to repair humanity’s troubled relationship with the environment, as well as a roadside wildflower seed bomb for radical planting.
To be clear, Stewart says, he’s not bashing new technologies. Instead, he’d like to bring a discussion on digital worlds to as many non-cloistered, non-art audiences as possible.
"I think we need to carefully evaluate whether this direction is a good direction to go for our species," he says. "It’s not so much that [virtual reality] is lacking humanity as it’s creating these really safe environments where we’re not actually exposed to anything harmful, which I don’t think would actually be really good for us."
Until we figure it out, Stewart wants to bring Second Livestock to Iowa’s Farm Progress show later this summer. And he’s not against the idea of actually testing the headsets on chickens. "If there was a scientist who was interested, I’d be interested in partnering with them," Stewart says. "As long as the chickens at the end of the research period could live a good life, and not just be culled."