A group of scientists in Australia have successfully taught orangutans at Melbourne Zoo how to interact with gaming technology that uses the same Kinect 3D sensor contained in an Xbox. In a world first, researchers from the University of Melbourne have developed a range of computer games, painting applications and picture galleries specifically for the sophisticated great apes, paving the way for orangutans to play games with zoo visitors in the future.

Melbourne Zoo has been using computer tablets to enrich activities for their primates for several years, it said, but the tablet itself caused serious limitations. Orangutans wanted to use more than just their hands to play, and the tablet itself was at constant risk of being smashed to smithereens. Orangutans are three times stronger than humans, but share 97% of our DNA.

Melbourne Zoo's animal welfare specialist Sally Sherwen wanted to make the gaming experience richer by allowing more full body movements and also wanted to promote direct interaction with visitors. "They enjoyed using the tablet but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to," Dr Sherwen said.

Using Microsoft's Kinect 3D sensor, the same one used in an Xbox, the games are projected into an interactive digital space directly inside the floor of the enclosure. The space is activated by the orangutans moving any part of their bodies across the projection. The individual primates responded differently to the various games depending on their own personalities, researchers said. "These individual differences are things we can use as inspiration to design something that is complex and motivates them to solve puzzles," Sarah Webber, one of the researchers involved in the project explained. "We know apes can successfully use touch screens but they are very task orientated, so we want to see if we can devise experiences that are inherently engaging to them", Webber continued.

One application is aimed specifically at a female ape called Kiani who enjoys looking at pictures of herself. Dubbed "Orangstagram", the app allows Kiani to take pictures of herself and display them. She can also go through a picture library and choose which one is her favourite. Such an activity opens up the possibilities of psychologists being able to learn significantly more about the emotional health of the primates, by analysing the selected pictures.

One of the chief games designers, University of Melbourne human computer interaction researcher Dr Marcus Carter said the whole point is to develop a system that the apes can understand. "If we can design an interface they understand, they could use it to communicate things about their welfare", he said.

Such an interface could then be developed into a shared space for interaction between the enclosed animals and the humans paying to visit them.