Beyond Barriers

Facilitating close personal contact between orangutans and zoo visitors

About the project

Project timespan: 5 months

Client: Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen

Beyond Barriers was conceptualized and tested in the real zoo environment of Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen, and is currently being reviewed for permanent implementation.

A research paper about this project (on the topic of human-animal interaction) is currently being written.

Across the Fence is an individual effort and graduation project at the Industrial Design faculty.



Beyond Barriers is an interactive installation that is developed in close collaboration with Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen. It serves to create more intimate and personal moments between orangutans and zoo visitors, without infringing on animal wellbeing and natural behaviour.

Beyond Barriers consists of two cylinders mounted on both sides of the orangutan exhibit barriers. The orangutan cylinder acts as a form of puzzle enrichment, as the primates can obtain food which is dropped from their cylinder as a reward. When the orangutans rotate their cylinder, on the other side of the barrier the visitor cylinder picks up the movements made by the orangutan, mimicking its rotations. Henceforth, visitors can feel these movements by placing their hand on the cylinder, and as such obtain a sense for having tangible contact with an orangutan. Making this tangible connection work the other way around, like some visitors suggested, was for now evaded to prioritise orangutan safety in the testing situations.

Both tubes also produce instrumental sounds when they are rotated, so that visitors and orangutans create music for each other, which in some cases leads to simple but enriching communications between species.

Proof of principle

Backstage in-zoo tests were conducted with the orangutans and a working prototype to determine whether the cylinder was attractive and "monkey-proof" enough for the orangutans. Also the effects of food puzzles and various responsive sounds on orangutan natural behaviour and wellbeing were researched. The orangutans appeared to come up with both very forceful as inventive approaches trying to tackle the puzzle. The results of these experiments were taken into a series of next tests in the real zoo environment, where the installation was actually able to facilitate some first basic moments of mutual contact between orangutan and zoo visitor (see top video).