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The case for giving chickens virtual reality

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Free-range chickens bring to mind rolling meadows, farmers markets, that scene from Portlandia — but these chickens could be getting a new look.

Iowa State University assistant professor Austin Stewart says his latest project, Second Livestock, would help factory farms raise animals in a more humane way. Second Livestock, whose name is a riff on the video game Second Life, would trick chickens into believing they are free-range animals. Fitted with Oculus Rift headsets and omni-directional treadmills, chickens would live in a virtual reality where they can roam free, peck at grub, and even stand up. Here's what it might look like:

Stewart's proposal is persuasive, but the project is likely an elaborate joke. Known for his wacky projects that challenge human dependence on technology, Stewart's social experiment draws attention to how innovation can sometimes be unhealthy for animals and humans.

"The goal of the project is to raise that question of how do we know what's best, or what is humane treatment... and also to look at how we treat ourselves. We're living in these little boxes, just like chickens," Stewart said in an interview with Iowa's Ames Tribune.