Virtual reality takes chickens from the coop to their very own bucolic bird paradise. “The Second Livestock System” is the sci-fi project that could give battery hens the technology to give them that free-range feeling. The chicken-friendly head-mounted gadgetry — the brainchild of Austin Stewart, an assistant professor at Iowa State University — is similar to the Oculus VR that allows gamers to experience a computer-simulated environment. Metro chats to the expert about the idea that is ruffling a few feathers in the farming world.
Just what does a chicken utopia look like?
[Laughs] A chicken paradise really is pretty simple. They need a mix of open space and cover: shrubs, bushes and they need a place to roost as well. The ideal chicken paradise would be a pastoral world with no human interference.
What’s the point of giving a birdbrain advanced technology?
The question is: is there a way that we can allow these birds to have a free-range existence within the confines of a container? In my view, more and more people are concerned with the humane treatment of chickens. Part of this project was about over-designing a solution to this problem. Our population is growing — the middle class, in particular — so the demand for chicken is going up. In ten to fifteen years’ time, I don’t know that we will have the space to give all these chickens a truly good free-range life. This looks at how we’re going to approach the future.
Does this justify battery farming?
With the way I present the project I like to leave that question to the viewer. Part of the reason behind the project is to create a dialogue. I personally think this is a terrible idea but at the same time it’s a conversation that we need to have.
Can you create a virtual world for other animals?
“Dog Park” allows neglected dogs to have a free-range experience while their owners are away. And then there’s “Second Habitat,” which is for zoo animals that are depressed and living in terrible conditions.
What about a world for critters that are in line for animal testing?
That’s really crazy but maybe that could be a very good use for that. Give those animals something to look forward to because by all accounts they have a miserable life.
Would our lives be better if we lived through virtual reality?
We live and work in these tiny little boxes and we spend most of our days going from one box to another. Oculus Rift does allow us certain freedoms that we don’t have in the physical world, so it might actually be better for our mental health.