Applying virtual reality to studies of animal behaviour is an exciting new area of research. Over the last two years, several chimpanzees and orang-utans at the WKPRC have participated in foraging tasks using virtual environments. Our apes use touchscreens to guide an avatar in a first person perspective through different cartoon style 3D environments. If the ape touches a location on the touchscreen, the avatar walks or turns in that direction. The virtual world contains hills and valleys, trees, flowers and shrubs, rocks and bodies of water. What is probably most interesting to the apes, though, is that this landscape also contains virtual food, like apples, grapes, bananas and peanuts. When the ape successfully steers the avatar towards such fruit, a reward sound is played and the ape gets a real piece of fruit in return.
Virtual environments provide a very engaging and fun cognitive challenge for apes. These study results provide us with novel insights into how they make their decisions. We are able to collect precise data on how the apes move through the virtual environment: when they turn, what they touch and how their travel paths change over time. By making use of virtual reality techniques we hope to address some of the tougher questions in primate spatial cognition: Are apes’ mental maps mostly a connection of familiar routes and waypoints, or can they also travel as if using a coordinate system and improvise shortcuts when necessary? Are some species better prepared than others in order to forage in environments in which certain resources come in clusters, or are they available only for short periods? What is the interplay across developments between spatial cognition and other cognitive processes like episodic memory, executive control and inferential reasoning? By documenting how apes move through virtual space we cannot only address these questions in novel ways, but also compare our findings to the behaviour of apes living in the wild.