World-first technology enables highly intelligent orangutan to interact with humans at Melbourne Zoo

Laurel Irving and Mel Buttigieg

It’s a case of Curious George at the Melbourne Zoo, where world-first computer technology has been developed to keep a genius orangutan from escaping - again.

In world-first research, Melbourne Zoo has partnered with Melbourne University and Microsoft to develop software to teach orangutans to interact with humans. Picture: 7 News

The aim of the project is to keep the highly intelligent primates from getting bored, after the Sumatran staged an escape from his enclosure in June last year.

The adventurous 12-year-old was caught after he escaped his main enclosure and into a secondary area, when visitors spotted him and alerted staff. So the zoo knew it had to do more to keep the primate entertained.

Zookeepers hope the new technology will keep Malu entertained to prevent future escape attempts. Picture: 7 News

A computer game, developed through Melbourne University, has allowed clever Malu to interact this morning with a human, in a world-first.

The groundbreaking technology being developed will create the potential for the orangutans to have new opportunities to interact with visitors through Microsoft Kinect.

Computer programs have been designed specifically for the orangutans using a simple X-Box and projector where one game projects photos and videos.

The orangutan enjoys learning with the new technology. Picture: 7 News

Malu tested the technology with Victoria's environment minister Lisa Neville on Wednesday, through a computer game on the other side of his enclosure.

The trial sessions indicated the orangutans were interested in the technology and interacting with their keepers.

Dr Marcus Carter said Malu understood straight away he was interacting with a person through the technology.

Victoria's environment minister Lisa Neville engages with Malu through the computer technology. Picture: 7 News

“We weren't sure if he would be able to see that, but he got that straight away. We could see him looking at Minister Neville as she was playing with the human side of the interface… It's a really exciting first step.”

“We know Malu is super intelligent and he really appreciates the challenges of technologies like these.”

“We want to understand the way the orangutans want to interact with the technology, the things that they find intrinsically rewarding, and then design applications and games that appeal to them,” he said.

The interactive technology’s potential is limitless, according to the zookeepers. In the future, it could allow the orangutans to control the light and temperature in their own enclosures.

Zoos Victoria's Director of Wildlife, Conservation and Science Rachel Lowry said Malu’s adventurous nature motivated the zoo to develop the Melbourne University partnership, but primate keepers planned to ensure its other orangutans benefit from the technology, too.

The zookeepers are working closely with animal welfare specialists at to design programs that they hoped the orangutans would enjoy and they would chose to be involved, she said.

Related video: