Bat-interpreting Billboard


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by getty, chris woebken, Jeff Rotman, Peter Prior,
07 Sunday 07th August 2011

Based on recordings from the Bat Library, the billboard relies on a database of recorded bat calls. Bat calls sounds like electronic clicks, and these clicks form the primary mode of communication for bats – who have poor eyesight but hyper-sensitive hearing – creating also environment maps to profile their environment through sonar. The Bat Billboard uses sound recordings from a database and cross-references these against 'live' sounds being made by the bats flying around and roosting inside the structure. Once matched the billboard then acts as an interactive display; communicating to human beings below what the billboard bats are up to.  

The billboard is a project by Woebken and co-developer Natalie Jeremijenko created to facilitate the bats in communicating their needs within an urban human environment. The billboard also acts as a controlled and safe roosting environment for the protected species of bat and as a colony base to aid scientists in their studies. But the results of interpretation can also be both playful and informative; tapping into a human curiosity, the technology aims to create interest and understanding of a dwindling bat population.

But bats aren’t the only mammals using technology to communicate with the human world. Inventor Peter Prior’s CATaLOG catflap has taken pet-owner devotion to a whole new level, allowing him to track the movements of his pet kitties Bobbin and Tuffin when he leaves them home alone.

How? Well, here comes the science bit; the cats wear 125Khz RFID key fobs on their collars which activate a RFID attached to a coil at the base of the cat flap; these in turn are linked into a wireless router which sends data over the internet to update the cats’ twitter page and website with their movements as they go in and out through the cat-flap. It also sends text messages to Prior’s phone alerting him when they’ve been gone a certain period of time and providing him with details of their favourite times to go out, the length of their trips and the frequency with which they come and go. Like Big Brother for cats, this invention allows pet-lovers to keep an eye on their feline companions when they are away from the house.

Back in 2002, inventors Keita Satoh, Dr. Matsumi Suzuki and Dr. Norio Kogure were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for promoting inter-species peace with their dog-to-human ‘Bow-lingual’ (バウリンガル) translation device. Using an inbuilt microphone to pick up the dog’s bark, the device then categorizes it into one of six emotional groups before presenting the pet owner with a phrase that represents the emotion. The device was launched in North America and Canada shortly after the Japanese version went live, and Meowlingual (ミャウリンガル), the cat equivalent ‘translator’ was subsequently launched. Despite Times magazine awarding it the title ‘Invention of 2003’, the precision of the ‘translations’ are subject to fierce debate, with some consumers noting its inaccuracy and proneness to interference from the wind and other technological equipment - the three reviews we could find ranged from mediocre to atrocious.

Slightly more reliable and certainly more established,  man has been communicating with dolphins through pictures and word-games since the 1960s. Until now though, that communication has been a one-way street with dolphins being forced to respond to man’s orders rather than offer their own interjections. That might be set to change though as Thad Starner and Denise Herzing (Jupiter Wild Dolphin Project, Florida) have combine forces to develop a prototype device to allow humans to record dolphin noises, interpret it and most importantly, respond to it with the dolphin’s own language.

The technology is apparently still in the early stages of development although Starner is set to test the prototype out on a species of wild Atlantic spotted dolphins during the summer months, giving them a clearer idea of how successful the device will be in the long run. The largest problem facing the fact that they have no idea what the salient ‘words’ of dolphin language are; although they can recognise and pull out individual sounds, as yet they cannot tap into their meaning. If this technology works, then dolphin specialists across the world can begin to develop a ‘dictionary’ of dolphin language which in the long-term might provide the gateway to understanding of one of our most intelligent animal relatives.

If this hasn't sated your appetite for information on inter-species communication, why not go and see Project Nim? The film by James Marsh (Man on a Wire) is based on the story of Nim Chimpsky, and dramatises one of the most infamous psychological experiments of all time as scientists attempt to teach a chimpanzee called Nim how to communicate with humans. We've checked it out, and it's a good 'un.

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  • Guest: Iluflee
    Mon 16 - Apr - 2012, 12:44
    Those are fruit bats in the picture 'taking off for insect snacks'