Battery chickens don’t have a particularly good life. They live in tiny cages, never getting to exercise, often attacking each other and developing health problems. It’s tolerated because it allows for greater egg production — although it’s worth noting that some regions of the world are phasing out battery farms.
Second Livestock — a name that riffs off MMOG Second Life — proposes to improve the lives of battery hens — by providing them with a set of virtual-reality goggles and an omni-directional treadmill, in the style of the Oculus Rift and Omni.
It isn’t, however, a real product — it’s a concept designed to get us to ask questions. “The goal of the project is to raise that question of how do we know what’s best, or what is humane treatment,” creator Austin Stewart, an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s College of Design, told the Ames Tribune, “and also to look at how we treat ourselves. We’re living in these little boxes, just like chickens.”
The system would provide chickens with a virtual free range experience, where they can roam free, socialise with virtual chickens and eat virtual food, which would be placed in the virtual world to line up with where the chicken would be fed in the real-world.
This would keep the chickens happy, supposedly, while also keeping them safe from predators and other hazards of free-range existence — kind of like a Matrix for chickens.
Meanwhile, the chickens would be physically housed in zero-waste facilities, where the waste would be recycled into fertiliser, and natural sunlight would be filtered in to allow the chickens to get enough vitamin D to remain healthy. Sensors on each chicken would also alert farmers if a bird was not active enough so that they could treat whatever ailment was at fault.
“In short, we go to great lengths to ensure that our birds are treated as humanely as possible,” the Second Livestock website reads. “It could be argued that they are better off in our facilities than they would be in the real world.”
The project is also designed to open a dialogue about how humans are starting to use similar technology.
“I think we need to carefully evaluate whether this direction is a good direction to go for our species,” Stewart said. “It’s not so much that virtual reality is lacking humanity as it’s creating these really safe environments where we’re not actually exposed to anything harmful, which I don’t think would actually be really good for us.”