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Visitors to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle check out Taj and Glenn, the new rhinos on exhibit. New technology could bring the animals even closer. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

For all of the excitement that goes on in some of the award-winning exhibits at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, a good amount of intrigue takes place behind the scenes, where the animals are often fed and cared for.

In an effort to shed more light on animal behavior, their welfare and more, the zoo is testing two new technological initiatives in the new Assam Rhino Reserve — home to two greater one-horned rhinos named Taj and Glenn.

The first tech undertaking involves a virtual reality experience in partnership with Oculus and its team based in Seattle. A first-of-its-kind project, the experience features a 360-degree video showcasing a day in the life of the rhinos. From the viewpoint of a caretaker, users will get an exclusive look at everything from the rhino’s dietary needs to what it looks like in the “rain room” where it showers.

Taj and Glenn have taken over an area which previously housed elephants. Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Alejandro Grajal said the resources which would have been spent building or re-adapting such an exhibit have gone into tech.

“It’s a 100-year-old zoo,” Grajal said. “Most of the behind-the-scenes areas are not really accessible or safe for people to see. So what we’re doing with technology is we see it as a huge opportunity for us to show the kind of care that goes on behind the scenes.”

Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Alejandro Grajal, right, watches as visitors observe the rhinos in their enclosure. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

While it’s not exactly feasible to punch a hole in a wall and show visitors what they’re missing in back rooms, Grajal said VR allows for that.

“The surprising part about zoos — not only this one, but almost all zoos — is that the most interesting part of what happens in the zoo — the care, the veterinary care, the trainer, the keepers — all that happens behind the scenes,” Grajal said. “When I tell people that we have a commissary that prepares food that is larger than most industrial kitchens and we get bales of organic hay and crickets and frozen fish and human-quality organic fruit — most people have no mindset of what it takes to feed 1,700 animals every day.”

While the VR experience will not be readily accessible to the public, the pilot program will be directed toward controlled groups of visitors. Their reactions to what they see and feel is part of overarching research the zoo is conducting to determine whether technology can enhance empathy in people, making them more likely to take pro-conservation action.

Walking along winding paths at Woodland Park and chatting in front of the sun bathing rhinos, Grajal discussed the need to design physical exhibits to cater to varying reading levels, or tactile needs or sight lines, etc. Some visitors may be more interested in animal welfare, different cultures, ecological concerns and much more.

“To me that is the ultimate experience, what I call the layered concierge experience,” Grajal said. “You can tailor the exhibit to your particular personal needs. That’s where technology comes in. Because with technology now we have the ability to layer different interpretations, whether you want to experience an exhibit in Chinese, or you want to see more videos about animals or you want to know what’s going on in the wild. That’s the other experiment we are running with the rhinos.”

A video about defeating rhino poachers is shown playing on a zoo official’s iPhone after an alert was sent via beacon near the rhino exhibit. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

That second tech feature, called Rhino Lookout, involves the use of Bluetooth beacons placed strategically and discreetly around the area where the rhinos are living. In partnership with Bellevue, Wash.-based Footmarks, the zoo is using the beacons to help push expanded digital content to the smartphones of visitors already using the zoo’s mobile application.

Rebecca Whitham, director of content and creative strategy for the zoo, is used to bringing as much information as possible to the zoo’s website. She’s excited about utilizing that workflow and technology in the outdoor space — where people are maybe accustomed to seeing only limited signage and information — and putting videos, quizzes, facts and action tips right at people’s fingertips for a richer experience.

“On the internet I can publish all of this content. But here, you’re not just going to plaster screens everywhere,” Whitham said. “You want that second-screen experience, you want that ability to add another layer of content without necessarily taking away from that experience of looking at the animal. If anything you want to heighten that experience.”

Standing at the fence line several feet from the rhinos, one of 10 beacons in the area triggered an alert to Whitham’s phone. It was a fun, Buzzfeed-style quiz to determine if she was more of a Taj or a Glenn.

One of the beacons, in white at left, is shown attached to the back of a display in the Assam Rhino Reserve at Woodland Park Zoo. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

“We’re doing the content we know people love and enjoy,” Whitham said. “And our hope is you go through that quiz and you find out, ‘I’m such a Taj,’ and then we say, ‘If you want to find out how to save the Tajs and the Glenns of the world, sign up for these emails and we’ll continue that conversation around conservation action.’ It’s acting on that moment of empathy and connecting the dots to that next step for conservation.”

While the zoo’s app is available for iOS and Android, the beta beacon experience — being tested through November — is currently available for iPhone only.

The lounging rhinos didn’t move much in the early morning sunshine while GeekWire was at the zoo. That didn’t stop kids of all ages from gawking and pointing and trying to get a better vantage point.

To have that experience, and more, no matter where you are could eventually be another component to all of this. While the core goal is to develop and deepen empathy, at least one zoo official wondered whether such an innovative experience could some day be exportable.

“Imagine a future in which you can explore Assam Rhino Reserve at your leisure or simulate care activities, regardless of where you are,” said Wei Ying Wong, the zoo’s vice president of learning and innovation. “VR allows us the promise of transcending time and distance — making the zoo experience possible for everyone.”

Taj and Glenn, the greater one-horned rhinos at Woodland Park Zoo, stand as enduring symbols of illegal wildlife trade. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
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