Let’s just be up front here: yes, these pictures seem to show a cow wearing a virtual reality headset, and no, we don’t really know what’s going on here.
You may have seen these images floating around social media followed by a trail of comments like “this is the dystopian future we were warned about” and “enter the mootrix.” They purportedly show an experiment being conducted in Russia to see if giving dairy cows VR headsets can reduce anxiety and increase milk yield, but — as you might have guessed — it’s not at all clear whether this is a genuine trial or an elaborate marketing stunt.
The story can be traced back to this (apparently serious) press release from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Moscow Region, which was picked up by Russian outlets like Interfax and The Moscow Times.
The reports say tests of the VR headsets are being carried out at a farm near Moscow, with the (Google-translated) release noting that the goggles have been specially adapted for a cow’s head shape and vision. VR designers were also reportedly hired to create a “unique summer field simulation program” for the animals to enjoy.
The release notes that there’s a growing trend in agriculture to focus on animals’ emotional well-being, with quality-of-life improvements like scrubbing brushes and relaxing music improving yields. So why not try VR as well? A first test of the headset showed “a decrease in anxiety and an increase in the overall emotional mood of the herd,” the release says, and a “further comprehensive study” is forthcoming. But, uh, is it? It’s not clear.
It’s certainly not impossible that this is a real experiment. The agricultural industry is as keen as any other to apply new technology — just look at the farmers using facial recognition on pigs! — and it wouldn’t be the first time that someone suggested VR could improve animals’ well-being. Plus, although cows don’t see like humans do, they do apparently have limited binocular vision, suggesting modified VR goggles could work on them.
On the other hand, the press release says the experiment wasn’t conducted by a university but by “Milknews.ru,” a news site for the Russian dairy industry. It also encourages readers to sign up for the upcoming “VI International Agro-Industrial Dairy Forum” where they can learn more about technology in agriculture. This suggests the VR cows might just be a good way to get attention for an otherwise run-of-the-mill conference. If so: job done.
We don’t know how deep this rabbit hole goes, but we’ve reached out to Milknews, the Moscow Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Rusmoloko (the company running the farm where the trials reportedly took place) to see if we can get any more info.
At the end of the day, what we can say is that someone took the time to make at least one mock-up virtual reality headset for a cow and took these pictures. We don’t need to milk the story any more than that.