How do horses see the world? The question is challenging and easily influenced by our human perspective of our surroundings.
Horses have dichromatic vision, in which only a color range involving two of the primary colors, blue and yellow, are perceived. Humans, therefore, enjoy a somewhat richer view of the world, with color-sensing cones in their eyes able to distinguish blue, yellow and red.
But other crucial factors play into the way we, and animals, see the world. There is the location of the eyes on the head, the field of vision, and the way the brain interprets the images gathered by the eyes.
Alan Hook, associate head of the School of Communication and Media at Ulster University in Ireland, is leading a project to take us some way toward understanding the visual world of the horse.
Hook became interested in how other animals view the world because of his two children’s concern for a horse that lived near their house.
They were worried about whether the horse was okay: Was the animal too hot? Too cold? Did it had enough food? From there, he began to ponder how horses see the world.
The project, dubbed Equine Eyes, started as an exploration of the field of Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) as a space for considering our relationships with other species and our human-centered biases.
The initiative, which began in 2019, has given rise to a set of design prototypes that are developed to help designers understand nonhuman species so that they can design accordingly.
It has the potential to help humans get a view of the world that might challenge some of their perceptions, building empathy and understanding of nonhuman animals.
How, for example, do horses view their stable, or the aisle that leads them there? How do they view yards, or the interior of a horse trailers?
The Equine Eyes project team has developed a set of wearable and useable headsets which test approaches to inter-species connections.
As Hook puts it, they explore other ways of knowing, and other approaches to designing for, and with, other species.
The headsets simulate horse vision by taking in two camera feeds, filtering and rendering them in an immersive head-mounted display to be experienced by the human wearer, with their binocular stereoscopic eyesight.
A horse has two large eyes, each with a 180-degree field of view on the side of the head, similar to most prey species, which give mostly monocular vision but cross at the front to give a binocular overlap to experience depth.
The headset draws in live feeds from two 180-degree high-definition web cameras angled to mimic the horse’s eyes.
This affords the user a 350° field of view, allowing them to see everything apart from directly behind them.
The headset also removes all red from the color range to help simulate how a horse sees the world in a dichromatic color range.
“The headset is really disorientating,” Hook tells Horsetalk. “I can best describe it as taking your eyeballs out and sticking them to the sides of your head, with fisheye glasses on and all the red removed.”
People are always seated when fitted with the headset because of the risk of disorientation.
“If you cross your human eyes inside the headset, then you can kind of see forward.
“It’s quite nauseating but you can adjust a bit if you can live through the initial trauma.”
So, do wearers who manage to persevere get better at interpreting the “horse view”, as their brain adapts?
“I was part of an art experiment about 15 years ago that influenced the project, where we had to wear ‘upside-down goggles’ for 14 days,” Hook recalls. “The brain plasticity means that your brain corrects for this.
“After 10 days my eyesight flipped and I could see ‘normally’ again.
“I would love to do the same with this headset, but my wife, two kids, and my job mean that I can’t really.
“Oh, to be in my early 20s again. I don’t think it would work for this headset as the studies are about reversal and the way that the human eye works and mirrors images projected in through the lens.”
Hook says he doesn’t have images available to provide some idea of what the view is like when wearing the headset “And that’s kind of deliberate,” he says.
“The project is really illustrative, and for me, it has to be experienced.
“I can write all day long about how a horse sees, and make mock-ups, but it isn’t until you put the headset on that you can understand the similarities and tensions between how we see and how a horse sees.
“I think there is a magic in not seeing it and imagining it and then hopefully trying on the headset and seeing it.”
Earlier prototypes adapted a commercially available virtual reality headset, but more recent versions are moving toward wireless technology.
“I am working on a completely wireless headset so that people can be in the field with a horse, rather than tethered to my laptop,” he says. “Maybe then I can run with horses.”
He expects the wireless version will be ready around July.
The Equine Eyes technology is built into an equine mask, fulfilling a deep-seated human notion that a mask allows us to become something else — in this case, a horse. It also introduces an element of playfulness.
The highly sculptural and stylized nature of the mask perfectly suits the cutting-edge nature of the project
Hook said he tried many types of masks, but ended up adapting one from RedHenDIY on the e-commerce website Etsy, which focuses on handmade or vintage items and craft supplies.
“I stay in contact with the seller and send her pictures of the work.”
Hook says the Equine Eyes project is aimed at helping designers who are working across species divides.
It aims to build an understanding of how horses might experience their designs and explores more speculative methods of understanding and knowing other species, he says.
Horses have a complex social and cultural history in the West and have lived alongside humans for thousands of years.
They have a long historical entanglement with work, leisure and companionship for human-animals, which makes them an important species to explore as a co-user of spaces with humans, such as stables, yards, competition arenas and the like.
“The prototypes help build our understanding of how nonhuman animals experience the world so we can build more inclusive futures,” Hook says.
“When we frame problems through design, we create space for plurality, possibility and play.”
Hook says he calls the project speculative to orientate academics and designers to the fields it draws upon. “It’s not a practical solution, or a commercial output, but uses design to challenge the way people think about the world.”
But, on a simpler level, the headset provides a space away from being human for a while, he says.
“And then, when we take it off, we can appreciate how we see the world instead of taking it for granted.
“I think this stops us anthropomorphising animals, because it stops our sight being situated and embodied.”