Unleashing Animal-Computer Interaction: A Theoretical Investigation on the “I” in ACI

Non-human animals have a long relation and co-existence with human culture and society, and we interact with them in a number of ways, and for various reasons. Their involvement in technology can be traced back to more than half a century ago, initially restricted to scientific contexts, e.g. in order to examine animal behavior, cognition and language learning. The advancement and growing ubiquity of technology have extended their involvement and interactions with technology beyond scientific settings to other domains and everyday contexts[FA1] , and for a broader set of reasons. This development is also driven by the emerging research area of field of Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI)­, in which designers have started to explore the possibilities of designing technology intended for animals. This demands to engage in the difficult task of understanding our new animal users and what kind of systems they want, developing animal-centered approaches and methods, as well as to find ways to account for the new forms of interactions it makes possible.

This new and embryonic situation for user-computer interaction research contests traditional notions of what a user and a participant is, and can be, and how digital technologies, as well as other species, are being used. Consequently, it also challenges previous theoretical foundations for understanding user-computer interactions and methods for involving animals in design. The latter has received special attention, where conventional approaches from the field of Human- Computer Interaction (HCI) and Interaction Design (IxD) has become a natural point of depar- ture. As a complement, ACI needs a bolder and more creative way of advancing when it comes to building and building a theoretical framework to account for what these new forms of inter- action means. There is a need to extend our thinking and conventional ways of doing research and design and preserve a maintained curiosity. This thesis aims at extending the conventional notions of how interaction is conceptualized, a topic that ineptly have suffered from negligence. Drawing on ethnomethodological and ethnographic fieldwork – covering a maximum variation of extreme and deviant of cases – this thesis explores the boundaries of the field and triangulates different theoretical perspectives in order to increase an understanding of the emerging dynamics of multispecies-computer interactions, and also how these insights can excite the imagination and be generative for animal-centered design and technology.


Following the leash

The ordinary practice of leashed dog walking is a dyadic and direct form of interaction similar to the standard perception of human or animal computer interaction. It is also a form of negotiation which can depict conflict of interests of the involved actors by observing the details of the moments where the leash is pulled taut. We present an ethnomethodological study of the interactional work during an ordinary leashed dog walk in the centre of Milano involving a woman and her two pugs. We show how a strained leash can result from a conflict between the dog’s attentiveness towards other dogs by smelling and looking, and the human’s urge to move along. We propose design directions supporting the dogs’ wants and needs by accessing the handler with information on the dogs’ curiosities in other dogs by visualizing the invisible scent universe of the dogs and encourage dog-dog interaction. Moreover, this paper is aims at bridging ACI with urban studies and open up for new design opportunities in terms of the possibilities of new digital technology to reconfigure animal city life.


The prince of the forest

The most common already established forms of interaction within the field of ACI are direct and dyadic, and limited to domesticated animals such as working dogs and pets. Drawing on an ethnography of the use of mobile proximity sensor cameras in ordinary wild boar hunting we emphasize a more complex, diffuse, and not directly observable form of interaction, which involves wild animals in a technological and naturalistic setting. Investigating human and boar activities related to the use of these cameras in the light of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Goffman's notion of strategic interaction reveals a gamelike interaction that is prolonged, networked and heterogeneous, in which members of each species is opposed the other in a mutual assessment acted out through a set of strategies and counter strategies. Seeing interaction as strategies and acknowledging the existence of complex interdependencies could potentially inspire the design of more indirect and non-dyadic interactions where a priori simplifications of design challenges as either human or animal can be avoided.

Online blooming

Despite ACI’s ambition to treat animals as the “new humans” to design for and with, we still discriminate in the selection of animals as users by focusing on species that are useful. Species from the plant kingdom, which lie even further toward the extreme end of the human non-human continuum, have been neglected as users even though they have been involved as an intriguing design material or resource within HCI. We inquire into ways of understanding plant interaction through a triangulation of  approaches: an ethnography of people’s ordinary practices in relation to sakura trees during the blossoming season; readings of theoretical works on human-plant relations and plants’ urge to spread; a review of how plants are involved in computing and computer systems; and finally a review study on how cherry blossoms are used in design and architecture. We bring these together and propose to discuss the involvement of florae in computer systems and design items through the lens of understanding plant interaction as temporally extended dissemination and agency to spread.