Elo Touch Solutions

Project Delphis: Dolphin-Operated Kiosks

CarrollTouch scanning infrared technology is making an important contribution to science and animal conservation in a research project at Sea Life Park Hawaii, which uses an underwater touchscreen to study dolphins.

Dr. Ken Marten, director of the dolphin research initiative Project Delphis, said the CarrollTouch scanning infrared technology allows dolphins to interact directly with a computer, giving researchers unprecedented opportunities to explore the animals' intellect. Marten said Elo Round Rock took on a task never before attempted when it accepted the challenge of designing and building the world's first dolphin-operated touchscreen. The Project Delphis installation also was the first application of an underwater touchscreen.

Elo Round Rock engineers considered two options when they studied possible solutions to the Project Delphis requirements: a touchscreen with all electronics outside the dolphin's tank or a hermetically sealed touchscreen with all electronics contained. For safety reasons, the first approach was selected.

Engineers spent three years designing and building the custom system, which includes an infrared beam grid mounted on a tank window and a monitor screen that faces the dolphins though the window. Infrared beams projected through the tank window are directed parallel to the window by four mirrors tilted at 45 degrees. When a dolphin's snout interrupts the infrared beams, the touch is detected by the infrared beam grid and relayed to a Macintosh computer.

"It wasn't easy, but the Elo Round Rock engineers enthusiastically tackled all the technical challenges," Marten said. "The system they came up with is reliable, ingenious and easy to calibrate. All of us at Project Delphis think they were quite courageous to take on a task like this."

Elo Round Rock Engineering Manager Tim Masters guided the project through its last six months. After a trial run of a prototype at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Masters realized that a number of technical challenges remained for CarrollTouch engineers.

"We realized we would have to pump up the signal (of the infrared LEDs)," Masters said. "In the test, the signal was significantly degraded by reflection from the mirrors and from passing through the tank window and salt water."

Solving this challenge required Elo Round Rock engineers to restructure the ground and power on the optomatrix assembly (which houses the LEDs) in order to produce a stronger infrared beam.

The "wake" produced by a dolphin's snout when it moves through the water to touch the screen posed another technical challenge for the engineers, who never faced this problem with touchscreens operated in air. Masters said digital filters helped solidify the signal so the detection system could pinpoint the touch location.

Finally, Masters created a software program that helps Marten optimally align the mirrors.

During early phases of the project, Marten was working with Apple Computer, which initially directed him to Elo Round Rock. Mike Clark, manager of Apple's Exploratory Prototypes Laboratory, said he recommended Elo Round Rock because of its reputation as a leader in optical touchscreens. "Elo Round Rock has a long-standing reputation for quality and technical know-how," Clark said. "They're the experts in optical touchscreens."

Elo Round Rock's quality standards provided a few unexpected benefits during the project. The touch controller, which provides the link between the optomatrix assembly and the computer, was completely submerged in salt water when a tank window broke. After drying out, it still worked, Masters said.

Apple donated the computer, a Macintosh PowerMac 8100AV, used in Project Delphis. "The PowerMac has the computing muscle to run digitized video," Marten said. "We want the dolphins to be able to choose digitized video sequences using the touchscreen. The videos will appear on the touchscreen instantaneously."

Researchers at Project Delphis have begun experiments they hope will lead to exploring dolphins' cognitive skills, such as memory. Using Aldus's SuperCard application, computer scientist Suchi Psarakos programmed the computer to control visual elements on a monitor. Without using food rewards, Marten's team taught the dolphins to first touch the screen, then touch a target on the screen, finally touching a particular target to produce a programmed effect, such as music or recorded dolphin sounds. Because there are no food rewards, the dolphins must be intellectually stimulated and interested in the results of operating the touchscreen.

"Dolphins are not particularly interested in abstractions such as geometric patterns or artificial sounds, but they are very interested in video material of other dolphins and in hearing dolphin sounds," Marten said.

The next experimental step, according to Marten, is to let the dolphins choose digitized video or audio sequences. By giving the dolphins more interesting tasks and material on the touchscreen, Marten and his team hope to conduct a series of psychological studies that could also be conducted on primates using similar methods.

"Using the same methodology for cognitive research on both dolphins and primates could lead to interesting results in comparative psychology," Marten said. "This is one of the most valuable areas in which an underwater touchscreen for dolphins might contribute to science."

The goal of Project Delphis is to educate people worldwide about dolphins in the hope of stopping the killing of dolphins. Tens of millions have been killed in recent years in tuna nets and drift nets. The project is part of Earthtrust, an international conservation organization with headquarters in Kailua, Hawaii.

Earthtrust President Don White said touchscreens provide an interface for dolphin research that is flexible and transparent for the dolphin's interaction with the computer. White developed the concepts for Project Delphis and the dolphin touchscreen.

"Touchscreens allow the dolphins to develop their own interaction style with the computer," White said. "Earthtrust hopes this kind of research will not only help us better understand dolphins but that it will also lead to more compassionate treatment of these intelligent animals."

Related Links

Project Delphis continues its research into dolphin intelligence-and continues to garner media coverage: