Sunday 11 March 2018

The Internet of Possums

This is very old news, but I thought I'd let everyone know that Possum TV featured in an art exhibition in May of last year.

Internet of Possums exhibit [source]

Stephen Barrass, who was one of the collaborators in this exhibit, had contacted me earlier that month for permission to use some videos from the Possum TV YouTube channel, but I subsequently forgot all about it and only just recently checked up to see what became of the project.

The exhibit was by Catherine Clover and Stephen Barrass and was titled Internet of Possums. It was part of the Beauties and Beasts exhibition at Belconnen Arts Centre.

Here is a link to Stephen's web site which describes the exhibit. There is also a YouTube video which
is a compilation of some videos from Possum TV.

As I come from a Science rather than an Arts background, a lot of this sort of thing goes over my head. I might be misunderstanding what they were getting at, but they seem to be exploring the concept of taking the idea of a possum box camera to the next level to provide two-way communication with possums. This being part of the broader idea of regarding possums (and wildlife in general) on more equal terms.

I probably can't say much useful about the philosophical implications of this, but from a technical point of view the concept of a Smart Possum Box (or, more generally, Smart Wildlife Boxes - when I mention "possum" below, please take this to mean "wildlife in general") is something that's worth exploring.

The state of the art of possum boxes is still desperately primitive. They are inferior in some important known ways (thermal insulation) to natural tree hollows, and almost certainly seriously deficient in other ways that we don't know about. When presented with an array of five different possum boxes, the possums here will often prefer to sleep in a stack of car tyres or a rolled-up garage door.

This does not need to be the case. A human house is much better than a cave. Why should it not be possible to make a possum box that is much better than a natural tree hollow?

Designing such a box is not just a cool thing to do, but may become critically important in the not too distant future when climate change and other environmental degradation really start to bite. We might have to provide animals with special protection like this if we don't want to lose them altogether.

There are already baby steps being made in this direction by the Australian National University, which has developed what could be termed a Smart Nestbox to help save endangered Swift Parrots in Tasmania.

A Smart Nestbox [see above link]

It's a very simple thing which uses a light sensor to close a door on the box at night to keep out sugar gliders, which had been preying on the birds (so I suppose it's really an Anti-Possum Box). The actual design is, in my opinion, crude and clunky, and expensive for what it does [This is not intended as a criticsm; it is essentially a prototype and that's what prototypes are like. My possum cameras fall into the same category.], but it works effectively. There is considerable scope for making this technology both cheaper and more sophisticated.

The nestbox doing its job excluding a sugar glider [source]

There is obviously scope for monitoring and data logging nestboxes; you can have cameras, temperature and humidity sensors, light sensors and maybe even a load cell for weighing the occupants of the box. Extensive monitoring like this can be used for optimising nestbox design.

But the possibilities of a smart nestbox can go beyond passive monitoring or simple mechanisms to do specific jobs. They can be interactive; they can be under the control of their occupants. Rather than have an ignorant human or a dumb algorithm decide what's best, why not let the animal choose for itself? Think of all those scientific experiments where a rat pulls a lever or pushes a button to get a reward. Animals are capable of learning and of using technology.

A simple example: consider a nestbox in which a possum can pull a lever to start a ventilation fan if it gets too hot. This would have to be better than using a thermostat to start the fan at some arbitrary temperature, and by monitoring under what conditions the possum is running the fan you get a better idea of what their preferences are.

I believe there is a lot of scope for interesting and useful projects in this area, but it's something that requires both imagination and hard work.


  1. how wonderful to see your videos used like this (the exhibition in Canberra). I'll go see if I can find any reviews :)

  2. With the current situation of deforestation, habitat loss and extinction, soon every wild animal would need and could have a smart box like that...