Forget About Free Range: These Oculus Rift–Wearing Chickens Roam Virtually

Iowa State University assistant professor Austin Stewart is using virtual reality to solve one of industrial poultry production’s biggest problems.
May 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With tens of thousands of birds packed into tiny cages, large factory chicken farms are known for their cruel living conditions. But given America’s demand for grilled, baked, and fried fowl—we consume 7 billion chickens per year—what are poultry producers supposed to do? Iowa State University assistant professor Austin Stewart has come up with Second Livestock, a solution that uses the hottest thing in virtual reality technology, Oculus Rift, to ensure that chickens at least think they’re living a humane existence.

As you can see in the above photo, Stewart straps the devices to the birds’ heads, and they think they’re roaming across the land, just like their peers on free-range farms. The chickens are content, and the farmers are happy because they get to keep mass-producing the animals for human consumption.

If you’re thinking this can’t be a real thing, that’s because Second Livestock is the industrial chicken production equivalent of A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satire that suggested wealthy English citizens should eat that nation’s starving children.

“In my presentations I try to present the project with an earnestness that makes the audience question whether or not it’s real,” says Stewart, who has enjoyed raising chickens himself. “Most people are on the ‘this is fake’ side of the fence until I announce that they will be able to try out the technology behind Second Livestock in a few minutes. It is pretty great to watch the faces of the audience at this moment.”

Though some might think Second Livestock is a solution to humanely meeting the public’s taste for poultry, Stewart doesn’t “pretend to have a real answer as to how we can improve their lives on the scale which would be required.” Instead, he says, he’s hoping “to propel that discussion and to approach the issues with humor rather than the hostility that often frames debates about animal welfare.”

He came up with the concept after going to a lecture by artist Michael Mercil about his film Covenant, which explores the relationship between a farmer and his or her animals. During the Q&A session after the film, a member of the audience “was pretty aggressively questioning him [Mercil] about why he didn’t push a free-range agenda.”

In his response, Mercil “referenced research that showed that free-range chickens have all the physical markers of a more stressful life,” says Stewart, “whereas conventionally farmed chickens tend to have fewer of those markers, raising the question as to whether it is better for chickens to be confined.” The discussion made Stewart want to explore what would happen if people tried to confine chickens while also giving them the ability to roam.

Stewart has spent his career creating art that questions cultural and personal assumptions. “With all of my work I try to bring the projects out of the art gallery and out of academia and into a public forum, because we all need to be having these discussions within our communities,” he explains. However, he says the project isn’t just about poultry.

“We tend to lead very similar lives to the chickens that we consume, spending most of our days in little boxes, or moving from one little box to another and seeking relief more and more often via virtual interactions and experiences. Is this the right way to go?” Stewart asks. It’s not hard to imagine Lana and Andy Wachowski having similar conversations as they came up with the plot for The Matrix.

No venture capitalists have approached him to fund the idea, but some folks just don’t get that Second Livestock “is meant to start a conversation, not to be produced.” As one commenter in the Ames Tribune told Stewart, “I can tell you that this is absurd and you will be ridiculed until retirement for this, should you go forward.”