New Research

Recent NYU research proposes that over evolutionary time, diet drives larger brain size in primates — not social pressures as originally thought. Alex DeCasien, PhD student at NYU’s Primatology Lab, conducted this new and groundbreaking research. She and her colleagues used larger data sets and newer methodologies now available to scientists. They discovered that primate brain size is predicted by diet but not sociality.


How Diet Relates to Brain Size

Why did some primate species evolve larger brains, but not others? Large brains have disadvantages, even if we associate them with intelligence. Larger brains are more “expensive” because they require more energy to power. Differences in the quality and difficulty of diet drives  brain size over evolutionary time, too. The higher quality  a diet is, the more energy the primate can obtain. The more difficult a diet is to obtain, the more energy it requires. These diets evolve over thousands/millions of years, allowing species to capitalize on their environment’s food resources.

Why does this matter? These diets evolve over thousands/millions of years, allowing species to capitalize on their environment’s food resources. Humans share a common ancestor with primates. We are more closely related to primates than any other mammal. And of all primates on earth, human brains are the largest and most complex. What can primate brain size tell us about ourselves? Perhaps we, too, developed large brain sizes due to diet. Studies are exploring this hypothesis. If so, we might consider our species’ relationship to food, diet, and the health of our environment.


Interactive Exhibit of Serious Research

A topic about primate is not commonly exposed and probably not too interesting for public. We noticed that such a heavy topic could be turned into a playful way to share the messages behind this research to public. We worked together with the researcher to make an interactive and playful exhibit to engage public attention to this topic. We wanted to spread this new research that diet is linked to brain size in primates and not sociality like previous evolution theory. Not only that, but we also wanted public to think about how we, as humans, understand our own past by studying primates.


Exhibit Design

Creating an intere exhibition was not easy. We needed to think about spatial, experience, and how audiences interact with the pieces to understand the value of its exhibit. Before we created each installations, we created a Journey Map to know how the flow of the entire exhibit and how can we design the experiences.

Primate Quest Journey Map


We created two interactive pieces for this exhibition: Brain Interactive and Diet Interactive. The goal of Brain Interactive piece is to let user understands how brain size is actually related to what primates eat. For the Brain Interactive, user is able to adjust brain size physically and see the display digitally.


Brain Interactive


For Diet Interactive, we wanted to deliver the main message of the exhibit. That is, the type of diet literally involved in how brain size changed through evolution. We wanted to make sure that user can understand directly and can take away the insights clearly by interacting with the piece.


Diet Interactive


We designed the Diet Interactive so that users could experience as if they were primates. We created an interactive game using Kinect and Unity. This game interactive contains three levels that represent a type of primate for each level. User would experience how primates eat, using different tools and energy to eat different type of food.


Exhibit Floor Plan


Prototyping and Playtesting

We did a lot of prototyping and playtesting before we developed all the interactive pieces. Quick prototyping and doing playtest as soon as possible are really helpful. That way, we could get a lot of insights and could iterate the design before actually developing them. Also, playtesting is very helpful to get the answers from all our confusions while deciding on some implementations.


Prototyping and Playtesting


Primate Quest Exhibit

Primate Quest was exhibited at ITP Spring Show 2018, New York Hall of Science, and The World Maker Faire 2018 (New York).

Primate Quest Exhibits


The Takeaways

Creating an entire exhibit was really challenging. The main goal was to deliver the messages to public in an interesting and playful way. Not only how to deliver it effectively, but also how to make people engage with it. As an Experience/Interaction Designer, I had to think about the exhibit flow, how people experience the show from entrance to exit, and also design the whole experience when people interact with the interactive pieces.

Every single detail matters. To create the whole experience, the use of space and other medium such as light and sound are really important. For the interactive pieces, I also had to think the flow from the beginning: how to attract people to interact with it. Then created the user journey of each interactive, the goal, and what could people take away from each piece.