Case Study: Equine Eyes
A speculative project by Alan Hook dealing with the inter-species connections via a set of design prototypes.
The project started as an exploration of the field of Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) as a space for considering our relationships with other species and our anthropocentric biases. The project examined ACI’s grounding in scientism, its reliance on positivist methodological approaches to knowing, and positivist measurements of success when designing for other species; through observation, measurement, biometrics and close study of the interactions of other species with the prototypes and design outcomes.
Equine Eyes (2019) is a set of design prototypes which are developed to help designers understand other nonhuman species so that they can design for and with other species. The project contains a set of wearable and useable headsets which test approaches to fostering inter-species connections with horses. The prototypes run counter to ACI’s (and HCI’s) scientism to create a set of outcomes which explore other ways of knowing, and other approaches to designing for and with other species.
The headsets simulate horse vision by taking in two live camera feeds, filtering them and rendering in an immersive head-mounted display to be experienced by the human animal wearer, with their binocular stereoscopic eyesight. The project explores speculative methods for building empathy and understanding of nonhuman animals. The empathy that the project explores is a kind of complex empathy without pathos, and “would thus be a technical empathy that rests not on the sharing of emotions but rather on the creation of a community of visual sensitivity” (Despret 2016:49).
A horse has two large eyes, each with a 180° field of view on the side of the head, similar to most prey species, which give mostly monocular vision but cross at the front to give a binocular overlap to experience depth. The headset draws in live feeds from two 180° HD web cameras which are angled to mimic the horse’s eyes. This affords the user a 350° field of view, allowing them to see everything apart from directly behind them. The headset also removes all red from the colour range to help simulate how a horse sees the world as a dichromatic colour range.
Earlier prototypes adapted a commercially available virtual reality headset, but more recent iterations are completely wireless and use a raspberry-pi portable computer to render the “horse-vision” so that the headset is battery powered and can be used “in the wild”. The headset is designed to progress Design as a discipline by opening it to metatheoretical speculation through Speculative Design practice. Equine Eyes is positioned as an aid for designers who are working across species divides; it aims to build understanding of how horses might experience their designs and explores more speculative methods of understanding and knowing other species (Hook, 2019).
Horses have a complex social and cultural history in the West and have lived alongside humans for thousands of years. They have a long historical entanglement with work, leisure and companionship for human-animals (Walker, 2008) which makes them an important species to explore as a co-inhabiter of a variety of shared spaces which could form potential design contexts.
The prototypes help build our understanding of how nonhuman animals experience the world so we can build more inclusive futures.
The project’s artifacts emphasise the importance of useable prototypes as tools or toys to play with and through the meanings and futures that the designs propose. Playing with the artifacts and the speculations they pose is an important approach to help grow audience understanding, and the social, political and cultural implications of the design outcomes and plausible futures. When we frame problems through design, we create space for plurality, possibility and play. Play(fulness) allows audiences and users to participate in the co-creation of meaning. The new wireless and portable prototypes can be used to experience and test a range of design scenarios and contexts to help in the designing for, and with, horses; emphasising the importance of different ways of knowing and being in the world, and that complex tacit knowledge can be embodied in things. The prototypes propose the development of an “interspecies inter-subjective subjectivity” to help build our understanding of how nonhuman animals experience the world so we can build more inclusive futures.
- Despret, V. (2016) What Would Animals Say If We Asked The Right Questions? Translated by B. Buchanan Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press
- Hook, A. (2019) Equine Eyes [available at www.equineeyes.co.uk]
- Hook, A. (2019) “Exploring Speculative Methods: Building Artifacts to Investigate Interspecies Intersubjective Subjectivity.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, no. 17, pp. 146–164. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.17.09.
- Walker, E. (2008) Horses London: Reakiton Books
Alan Hook (Ulster University) is Associate Head of School, Senior Lecturer in Interactive Media, maker of oddities and experiences for human and nonhuman animals. His research explores how immersive media, games and play can be used to explore complex social, cultural and political issues. He is currently working on a series of projects which explore speculative methods for interspecies design and approaches to foster interspecies empathy.