Of all the intensively-farmed creatures, battery hens probably have the worst deal when it comes to quality of life, but science may have provided a technological answer to provide an enhanced quality of life for these birds.

Public concern has prompted a slow trend towards more "free range" farming, but for millions of hapless birds, life still consists of a cage which offers approximately 750 cm² of space; 600 cm² of which is "usable area" and the other 150 cm² is utilised for a nest-box.

These cramped quarters, generally found in Europe where conditions must comply with E.U. regulations, are still at the top-end of battery hen accommodation; in unregulated countries such as Thailand and some parts of North America, birds are stuffed into cages with several others and have barely room to breathe.

An undercover investigator for "Mercy for Animals Canada" reported such appalling conditions in Alberta, discovered on farms supplying eggs to the MacDonald’s chain:

"Each bird has less space than a sheet of notebook paper to live her entire miserable life, unable to spread her wings, walk, play, see the sun, breathe fresh air or do nearly anything that would make her life even remotely worth living," described the investigator.

The plight of battery hens has been on the priority list for most animal welfare organisations for years, but whilst consumers continue to demand cheap food, there will always be an incentive for the farming community to overlook animal welfare standards and treat animals as a marketable commodity. This means cramming more and more birds into smaller and smaller spaces to produce cheaper and cheaper eggs and meat.

So how can science help to improve the lives of these unfortunate creatures?

A virtual reality project known as "Second Livestock" has been developed at Iowa State University with the intention of providing caged hens with a free range experience.

Assistant professor at I.S.U, Austin Stewart, proposes that fitting chickens with specially-designed Oculus Rift-style headsets could give them the perceived experience of roaming freely and socialising with other birds, thereby enhancing their physical and psychological well-being.

Oculus Rift headsets are better known for attempting to provide avian-type experiences for humans: the "Birdly" virtual reality simulation was designed to recreate the experience of flying freely as a bird, but tiny versions have now been adapted to give battery chickens a taste of the great outdoors.

"The small and lightweight Animal-Computer Interfaces are designed to fit comfortably and allow chickens a full range of motion," Stewart says. "In short, we go to great lengths to ensure that our birds are treated as humanely as possible. It could be argued that they are better off in our facilities than they would be in the real world."

Day and night scenarios are incorporated into the virtual experience to maintain the chicken’ circadian rhythms; the chickens stand on multi-directional treadmills to simulate free ranging movement, and virtual food sources are programmed in to correspond with actual food supplies and feeding schedules, all of which trick the hens into thinking that they are leading a full and rich outdoor lifestyle.

Though the concept of such headsets for galline recipients is still theoretical and has not yet been seriously considered for mainstream applications, it raises important questions: should we really be exploring this type of technology in order to improve the lives of intensively-farmed animals, or should we just improve their actual living conditions and accept that this might cost us a few pence more? Would creating such virtual realities for battery hens, other farm animals or even humans who are bed-ridden, be ethically sound?

If technology can help to augment a battery hen’s quality of life, then this bizarre alternative must be an improvement.There are those who suggest that, in many cases, the human existence is not too dissimilar to that of battery hens: one could argue that this form of virtual pacification is no different to the type of life enhancement offered to the millions of TV viewers, who live their lives vicariously through the activities of their favorite actors each day instead of actively living their own lives.

In grim reality, many humans do live in overcrowded and unhealthy situations; families of slum-dwellers in Hong Kong live in tiny apartments barely the size of a toilet cubicle, where they attempt to eat, sleep and wash in a minute space with barely room to turn around. Yet, with an ever-increasing global population, such "micro-apartments" are being viewed as the living spaces of the future, a potential already being exploited by interaction designer, Bernardo Schorr. Schorr believes that the future may see city-dwellers occupying windowless 100-square-foot apartments, so he’s created a digital solution that will help these "human battery hens" to function happily in confined conditions.

His virtual projections onto apartment walls will make them appear spacious with amazing views:

“It’s made for a future in which having any windows at all would be a luxury,” Schorr says. “We might not really need these ‘mixed reality’ living spaces quite yet, but the project is made for a future in which we’ll need them to be able to cope with confinement and survive these smaller apartments.”

Even for those of us who currently live comfortable lives in comparatively agreeable home environments, our freedom is eroded in other ways. We may believe that we have complete freedom of choice, but one only has to attempt to push radically against the flow of society to discover that our lives are actually controlled by a myriad of restrictions, generally accepted as the norm and rarely questioned, but which combine to create a frighteningly small range of options for true "freedom of choice".

In fact, the field of quantum chromodynamics suggests that our whole existence could just be a virtual computer simulation (read Unknown Country: "Do We Live in a ‘Real’ Universe–or is It Just Somebody’s Toy?"), where all apparent choices are merely tricks of the mind to keep us controlled and relatively content.

As Morpheus’ challenge to Neo in the film, "The Matrix" illustrates, how would we ever know?

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

Your comments are, as always, welcomed on this and all of the fascinating subjects covered here at Unknown Country – subscribe today to offer your views.

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