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Digitally Complemented Zoomorphism: a Theoretical Foundation for Human-Animal Interaction Design

Westerlaken, M., & Gualeni, S. Digitally Complemented Zoomorphism: a Theoretical Foundation for Human-Animal Interaction Design in DPPI ’13 Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces pp 193-200

In this paper Westerlaken and Gualeni aim to develop an approach to grounded research in Animal-Computer Interaction and “digitally mediated human-animal interaction.” They draw on the work of Plessner (1928) to try and construct a design approach which focuses on the animal rather than an anthropomorphism version of the animals needs. The paper locates the interaction in play as a shared communication strategy which could be situated in the indices or communication rather than the symbols or iconography which would be species specific.

Westerlaken and Gualeni use grounded research, and a review of biometic data as a mode of practice which could focus on the animal, rather than the human interpretation of the animals signals. This could give a form on interaction which focuses on animal pleasure and behaviour rather than human need. This would situate the methodology heavily in user-centred design in HCI. This paper offers a research methodology for conducting animal centric research, but it has a focus on grounded design research which is possibly in opposition to speculative design practice.

Westerlaken and Gualeni state that “the objective of this shared activity with the animal is not attributed a priori, but unfolds itself intuitively in the course of the interaction. An example includes the elementary understanding of the intentions of a dog while playing with a human being.” which would focus any development of outcomes on the plaidic rather than the ludic encounters of games which would need a shared understaanding of the goals of the interaction before the game could commence, unless the game system adapted to the inputs based on biometric data. The study also highlights the problems in using biometics with animals due to the intrusive nature of the sensors and the intervention by the researchers to enable them to monitor the data.

Useful quotes

“Our work is pursued in order to provide animals with stimulations which stem from a closer understanding of their perceptions and are not solely designed around human subjectivity.” (p 193)

“For the gathering and the understanding of animal feedback to inform and guide design decisions and research methodologies that are generally different from those passed down from the tradition of User-Centered Design. Their dissimilarity is in general introduced in order to avoid interpretations of preferences and behaviours that would solely be founded on human subjectivity” (p 193)

“The benefits of technologically mediated animal interaction are currently focused on the perception of animal needs, based on subjective human judgements and the human end of the animal-human relationship.” (p 194)

“As a starting point for understanding what it means to design technology with animals as intended users we will introduce the fundamental differences between humans and animals according to Helmut Plessner’s theory of positionality” (p 195)

“Animals, on the other hand, have an experiential centre and a degree of self-awareness which is called a ‘centric positionality’. This relation to their surroundings enables animals to make independent decisions, such as moving to a better location, or to an, for humans indefinable, extent interact with other beings. Thus, the availability of a centre makes the animal self-aware of its own body and experiences.” (p 195)

“Even though humans and animals perceive their environment in a different manner, an activity in which humans and animals share concepts of understanding and responses to signs, cues, and behaviour includes physical ‘play’, a recognizable and voluntary activity that is observed in many mammals. Such a quality makes it a suitable context for further research with the purpose of finding a more compromising and animal-inclusive approach for the design of technological artefacts aimed at mediating human-animal interaction.” (pp 196-197)

“centric animals seem to experience play as something different than eccentric human beings, because their experiential structure is organized in a different way. Centric animals might not have the full ability for self-reflection and their experience and perception of the environment is different from ours. However, when focusing on play in animals that human beings share certain characteristics with, a mutual understanding and response to signs, cues, and behaviour emerges” (p 197)

“According to philosopher Jos De Mul, common traits in the way bodily signals are produced and interpreted allow specific species to understand other species to a certain degree. In particular, he argues that the dimensions that constitute the human world enable us not only to meaningfully relate to other human beings, but up to a certain degree to understand animal life as well.” (p 197)

“The objective of this shared activity with the animal is not attributed a priori, but unfolds itself intuitively in the course of the interaction. An example includes the elementary understanding of the intentions of a dog while playing with a human being.” (p 198)

“On this basis, Mancini et al. recently published an article in which they proposed the exchange of indexical semiotics through which humans and dogs could coevolve. This article describes how one of the three kinds of communication signs (‘symbols’, ‘icons’, and ‘indices’) is specifically suitable for trans-species interaction. Where ‘symbols’ and ‘icons’ are merely abstract signs and require linguistic abilities, ‘indices’ are instead directly and physically grounded in a bodily relationship with the world and other beings and thus neither preclude nor require shared mental abilities.” (p 198)

“However, this work continues to rely on a subjective understanding of the animal (since it focuses solely on human interpretations), and does not stem from an articulated theoretical framework.” (p 198)

“a combined interpretation of the interaction with the animals and technological artefacts designed by human beings, reports by the humans involved in the activity, the use of metric data and the tracking of the animals’ biometric dimensions or behaviours during the interaction is likely to provide a solid, balanced and sustainable understanding of the involvement and the level of enjoyment of both poles of the relationship.” (p 199)

“each species shows different playful behaviours, the research towards the design of technological artefacts requires a difference in approach in designing meaningful interaction for each individual species. Therefore the first step that is suggested consist out of the gathering of existing research, observations, and expert knowledge on the specific animal species that will be considered the final user of the design process” (p 199)

“Since there is always a human element involved in the design of technology, a certain degree of anthropomorphism is always present and unavoidable.” (p 199)

Further reading

Bekoff, M., and Allen, C. 1997. Intentional communication and social play: how and why animals negotiate and agree to play. In Bekoff, M., and Byers, J. A. 1998. Animal Play. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

De Mul, J. 2010. Cyberspace Odyssey: Towards a Virtual Ontology and Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

De Mul, J. 2013. Understanding nature. Dilthey, Plessner and biohermeneutics. In D’Anna, G., Johach, H., and Nelson, E.S. (eds.), Dilthey, Anthropologie, und Geschichte. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, Spring 2013. Preprint available at,-plessner-and-biohermeneutics

Dennett, D. C. Intentional systems. Journal of Philosophy, LXVIII 4 (1971), 87-106.

Haraway, D. 2008. When species meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Lee, S. P., Cheok, A. D., and James, T. K. S. A. Mobile pet wearable computer and mixed reality system for humanpoultry interaction through the internet. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 10 (2006), 301-317.

Mancini, C. Animal-computer interaction: A manifesto. ACM Interactions 18 (2011), 69-73.

Mancini, C., Van Der Linden, J., Bryan, J., and Stuart, A. Exploring interspecies sensemaking: Dog tracking semiotics and multispecies ethnography. Proceedings ACM Ubicomp (2012), 143-152

Plessner, H. 2006 (1928). I gradi dell’organico e l’uomo. Introduzione all’antropologia filosofica. Torino (Italy): Bollati Boringhieri.

Tyler, T., and Rossini, M. 2009. Animal encounters. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.

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