Electric Dreams Help Cows Survive The Desert Of The Real

Pictures of a cow wearing a pair of comically oversized virtual reality goggles recently spread like wildfire over social media, and even the major news outlets eventually picked it up. Why not? Nobody wants to read about geopolitical turmoil over the holidays, and this story was precisely the sort of lighthearted “news” people would, if you can forgive the pun, gobble up.

But since you’re reading Hackaday, these images probably left you with more questions than answers. Who made the hardware, what software is it running, and of course, why does a cow need VR? Unfortunately, the answers to the more technical questions aren’t exactly forthcoming. Even tracking the story back to the official press release from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Moscow Region doesn’t tell us much more than we can gather from the image itself.

But it does at least explain why somebody went through the trouble of making a custom bovine VR rig: calm cows produce more milk. These VR goggles, should they pass their testing and actually be adopted by the Russian dairy industry, will be the newest addition to a list of cow-calming hardware devices that farmers have been using for decades to get the most out of their herds.

Presented in Cattle-Vision

The press release claims that the VR goggles were modified from commercially available hardware to take into account the shape and size of a cow’s head, but there’s no word of which product served as the basis for the experiment. Given the massive size of the goggles in relation to the cow’s human handler though, it’s safe to assume that whatever headset was used is being completely obscured by the obviously custom enclosure.

That said, because we can see no obvious cables coming from the headset, it’s possible researchers using some variant of the phone-based VR goggles that were all the rage after the release of Google Cardboard. We’ve noticed that excitement over these simple gadgets has waned significantly in the last year or so, but here the idea makes perfect sense. If you’re looking to outfit whole herds of animals with this technology, a basic plastic enclosure that holds a cheap Android device makes perfect sense.

One also has to wonder what sort of optics are required to fool a cow into thinking they’re looking at a real pasture. Like many prey animals, a cow’s binocular vision is minimal when compared to human vision. In other words, they have limited depth perception when looking directly ahead. In fact, it’s said that cows have trouble discerning shadows from actual holes in the ground, and will avoid walking over them. On the other hand, they have excellent panoramic vision which allows them to see nearly 360 degrees without having to move their heads.

Accordingly, it seems there would be little need for the sort of stereoscopic optics used in even low-cost VR headsets. A more likely arrangement would perhaps be a large-format phone (or small tablet) behind a Fresnel lens that would expand the image to fill the cow’s field of view. Since the goggles don’t appear to wrap around the cow’s head it seems unlikely it could provide much more than a 180 degree view for the animal, but that may still be enough to achieve the desired effect.

Adding a New Dimension

It might seem like this technology is a stretch, but one could argue that it’s simply the logical evolution of what dairy farmers have already been doing for decades. For nearly as long as humans have been keeping cows domestically, it’s been known that they seem to enjoy listening to music. In the early days farmers would actually play instruments for their herds, but as technology improved, they installed loudspeakers and piped in recorded audio.

In an oft-referenced 2001 study, psychologists from the University of Leicester observed a 3% increase in milk production in cows that were exposed to slow, relaxing music during the day. That might not seem like a lot on a small scale, but when multiplied by thousands of cows, it’s certainly worth the cost of a few speakers. The science behind this is still not fully understood, and the psychologists explained the experiment was designed primarily to fact-check the anecdotal claims of farmers who were already serenading their animals.

A band performs live music for dairy cows, circa 1930. Image credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

The general consensus is that nervous and agitated cows produce less milk, so anything that can calm them down should result in a noticeable increase in yield. Some even claim the taste of the milk is improved when the animal is more relaxed, but there’s even less science to back up that idea.

Given this, the idea that providing the cows with visual stimulation to go along with the music that many farmers are already playing for them doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. The press release claims that researchers have already found wearing the VR headset seems to improve the cow’s general mood. In the future, a more comprehensive study will be performed to see how much it actually increases milk production over existing techniques.

Life Imitates Art

Even so, it’s hard to look at this experiment and not see it as needlessly complex. After all, humans have been managing to coax milk out of cows for all of recorded history without any video game trickery. But of course, the demands of modern farming are quite a bit different than the idyllic mental images most of us have. If you’re picturing something that looks like what they put on the carton: a handful of cows meandering around a wide-open pasture, complete with grain silos and a windmill in the background; the reality of a high-yield dairy farm might come as something of a shock.

Dairymaster Rotary Milking Parlour

It could be that providing the cows with a vision of a somewhat less dystopian environment might make life in captivity easier for them. If this sounds a bit like the plot of The Matrix, that’s because it literally is. As depressing a realization as it may be, putting cows into a virtual environment where they can forget they’re being mechanically drained of their bodily fluids in service of a technologically superior species might be the nicest thing we can do for them.

From a purely practical standpoint it seems like lining their pens with high-definition displays showing scenes from a spring meadow would make more sense than equipping each cow with an individual video system, but perhaps the simulation wouldn’t be accurate enough. Like Morpheus said, “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

62 thoughts on “Electric Dreams Help Cows Survive The Desert Of The Real

        1. To be fair, almost anything kills more people than sharks. Slippery bathtubs. Old sandwiches. And cars? Fuggedaboutit. Using sharks as a measure for what’s threatening is inherently sensational.

    1. also it’s 100%, erm, bullshit.

      Cows eyes are pretty much on the sides of their heads, not the front. They do not have useful stereo vision like, but a wider FOV due to being more prey than predator. We trade off peripheral vision for depth perception.

      If someone were to build a Cow Matrix, the headset would not look like a backyard clone of the Vive.

  1. We live in a state of mental dissociation. We play with stuffed animals since newborns, we cry watching cartoons were pigs were the cutest thing, we care for our pets as if they were family, and yet we are somehow completely fine with the atrocity of exploiting the exact same animals to death for dairy and meat. Bonus points for ruining our planet in the process.

    1. Yeah. This is pretty damn dystopian. Just ghastly. The best part is that most of us are basically one step up from livestock in the grand plan of our culture, so what works for the cows will soon be implemented on us I’m sure. Wework is gonna pivot from their obviously fraudulent real estate scam and just start renting out tiny utility closets with VR headsets that show you a twee virtual open office full of assholes drinking gallons and gallons of computer-generated coffee. We’re accelerating ourselves into the dumbest, most boring, least sustainable future. It’s bone-chillingly stupid and short-sighted.

      They’re putting all those poor cows into VR. And they’re not even using a headset designed for sideways-facing eyes like cows have. They try to explain it away, but it just isn’t right. You would want two separate LCDs on opposite sides of the head. They just strapped on an oversized human version—look at the cow’s eyes in that 1930s photo and then look at the headset—there’s no way that works. I bet it’s just an empty shell and they did it to dupe some dumbass VCs into investing in their buzzwordy grift. That’s where my money is. Almost all VR at this point is a cynical money grab designed to dupe people with unrealistic futurist ideals.

      1. Um…no? I bought into VR, and it’s kinda great. There is still a way to go to full immersion, but I mean i’ll take it? The cow thing is obviously fake unless they are using mirrors to direct the eyes to the LCD’s.

    2. • Stuffed animals taste terrible.
      • Cats & dogs lick their own asses.
      • Cows tastes great.
      • Chicken tastes amazing.
      • Pigs can morph into bacon, ham, pork, batteries to power headsets for cows, insulin & the production of bullets. which are useful when you have 30-50 feral hogs that run into your yard within 3-5 mins while your small kids play.

    1. The cows are in blinders. Fifty bucks says there’s no electronics in that headset at all. I mean the poor thing’s eyes are right up next to where the head strap buckles into the mask. This is a con, I am almost completely sure of it.

        1. Don’t get me wrong, still an interesting and well-written article. But yeah, sometimes stuff like this is worthwhile practice for spotting fake tech and vaporware :) It’ll happen to us all several times over our lives, after all.

      1. “Ministry of agriculture and food of the Moscow region” is the biggest red flag I see here. (No pun intended.) The Ruskies be trollin’ I’m certain.
        In Soviet Russia, government cow milk you!

  2. “As depressing a realization as it may be, putting cows into a virtual environment where they can forget they’re being mechanically drained of their bodily fluids in service of a technologically superior species might be the nicest thing we can do for them.”

    Well when you put it THAT way… But it’s no more awful that when a calf does it. Anyway, how about the contribution of smell to the whole, keeping calm?

    1. “But it’s no more awful that when a calf does it”
      I mean it certainly is more awful. Would you compare a human mother nursing her baby to one that’s revolved through a massive mechanical contraption each day with thousands of other women for their entire lives?

        1. Yeah, I was raised on a farm. Doesn’t mean we don’t often justify treatment of them as something they need when really it’s just something we need. Obviously a dairy cow needs to be milked, but the current industrialized state of affairs is much more than that. I also know that pain is part of the reality of nature, but that doesn’t serve as a catch-all excuse for us to not think about these things, and about the ways we can make it better every now and then instead of constantly accelerating into a world where living beings are just raw materials to be dismantled and exploited. Which is part of what this VR concept is all about, I suppose. The old-fashioned way I was used to on the farm was a marked improvement over what we have today, with the obvious and major exceptions of volume and profitability. I understand why it’s needed, but that doesn’t mean I have to ignore the problems. It’s definitely not the same as a cow feeding her calf, that’s a fact.

  3. This is just an animal tests before applying to humans with exactly same purpose – to maximize yeld from subjects. Wait, oh… isn’t that smartphones things everybody permanently look into are the same things as that VRs for cows?

    1. I mean you’re not wrong, but it still sucks. We’d be foolish to think all this technology and hyperreality around us isn’t going to ever be used to exploit people en masse. That would be totally ignorant of history and human nature. There’s gotta be some kind of checks in place, and we’ve perhaps drug our heels too long to ever catch up and make the system accountable and safe from being used for the worst kinds of public manipulation. Regulation lag in fast-moving technologies means that being five years late may as well be a century too late.

      If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past twenty years, it’s that Silicon Valley uses dystopian sci-fi like Minority Report or The Matrix as instruction manuals, not warnings. Been looking at that new Chinese system (that we helped develop of course) which intends to use a person’s DNA sequence to build a facial recognition algo that can track them at any age. Specifically it’s designed to track the Uyghurs. Sounds like AI snake oil IMO, but you can see where their intentions are. The people building this tech have no qualms with letting it be used in the most abusive ways imaginable.

      They will instantly build it for tyrants without batting an eye, and that’s certainly gonna swing back our way sometime soon. I’m not a total Luddite, but right now we’re essentially selling the IT equivalent of neutron bombs to anyone who comes up off the street and asks. You gotta think about what the technology will become a few years in the future, not what it is now—using those phones as an example, nobody really imagined they would come this far back in the flip-phone days, and that really wasn’t very long ago. The same thing is going to happen to what we’re building today. It’ll be way more powerful than we imagine, even taking into account the fact that we know it’ll be more powerful than we imagine.

      1. Most geeks working in Silicon Valley are amoral if not sociopathic. It’s the only way one can explain these very bright people working on machines meant to enslave us.

        Our Matrix won’t be run by some AI it will be run by a collection of geeks with all the humanity of a meat grinder. Our future is freaks like Zuckerberg, Brin and those like them.

    1. Well that’s too easy. Can’t have free range, grass fed cattle.

      Joking aside, what you state is the solution, but you don’t make as much money that way as you would with a factory farm that keeps the animals ankle deep in shit and forced to eat ground up cardboard and ground up dead animals because it’s more cost effective than feeding them grass and grains.

      I curse the day big business turned farming into something that looks like something the Devil came up with.

      1. Dairy farms are not like that. They are generally very clean well managed places where the animals are relatively well taken care of. They get things like water beds. A happy cow produces more serotonin which directly effects milk production.

  4. Not sure I completely understand the benefits here. Cows are big animals and can be destructive or dangerous when agitated. Looks like the cows can still hear what is going on around them. Cow is watching VR and is calm, check. So, cow is wandering aimlessly around the farm and can’t find the barn, the water, the rest of the herd, the feed, the fence or the dog barking but can hear all of the other cows. Bet they’ve never seen a cow with her head stuck in a ladder or the chaos that follows. The first cow in distress would make the place a madhouse. Good luck with that.

    1. Ikr? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. If human minds can be tricked with VR, as we have seen multiple times, I’m pretty sure those cows will be the same or worse. What if the cow suddenly wants to go for a jog on the virtual meadow? It might hurt itself, get confused, scared and you would achieve the opposite of your intended result.

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