App-savvy dolphins get giant underwater touchscreen

A "dolphin version of Whack-a-Mole" is just one app now available to a group of geeky dolphins as researchers study their communication.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Enlarge Image

A dolphin plays with a touchscreen game.


We have a lot in common with dolphins. We form social groups. We have complex languages. And we both like to play with gadgets. Bottlenose dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, are tapping into their techie side with a massive underwater touchscreen stocked with dolphin-friendly apps. 

The m2c2 (marine mammal communication and cognition) project is led by dolphin cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss from Hunter College and biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco from Rockefeller University. "The system, the first of its kind, will be used to investigate dolphin intelligence and communication by providing them choice and control over a number of activities," the researchers said in a statement.  

The touchscreen, unveiled last week, is 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide and installed outside a viewing window. The dolphins "touch" the screen with their noses, and those interactions are detected optically. The research is still in a very early phase, but the scientists hope to learn more about what could happen when dolphins are able to "request items, videos, interactions and images."  

"Giving dolphins increased choice and control allows them to show us reflections of their way of thinking and may help us decode their vocal communication," Reiss said. Cameras and microphones will record the dolphins' interactions with the screen. 

The researchers aren't training the dolphins to use the screen, but instead are letting them explore the device on their own. One dolphin in particular, named Foster, is really into a game Reiss describes as "a dolphin version of Whack-a-Mole" that requires tracking and touching moving fish images. The team released a video showing Foster playing with the screen

This m2c2 project is another example of how humans are using technology to communicate with animals. Zookeepers in the Netherlands developed a tablet-based "Tinder for Orangutans" to help an ape find a mate, and some clever canines have been able to attend their own iPad training classes.

Of course, we're all really wondering if the dolphins will soon tap out "send more fish, please."

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

Batteries Not Included: The CNET team reminds us why tech is cool.

These far-out animals fascinate and amuse scientists

See all photos