A virtual reality headset to fool sedentary chickens into believing they are free-range? This has got to be a joke, right? Well, it sort of is, sort of isn't.

The seemingly-absurd (but very real) technology comes from Iowa State University assistant professor Austin Stewart, who came up with the idea while sitting in a lecture that pertained to farmers' relationships to their animals and animal rights, reports the Mail Online

"I was sitting in a lecture with Michael Mercil, and he does a lot of work dealing with farmers' relationships to animals. Afterwards he was asked about animal rights, and he said free range life is inherently dangerous - as animals have more stresses," explained Stewart. 

So, Stewart thought, what if chickens could wander a virtual world? Our poultry could then benefit from the good feelings of sauntering freely without all the dangers present in reality. Farmers could rest assured knowing that their animals are safe and sound, and the hens wouldn't feel so confined.

"I did a lot of work to get the technology right, and it's absolutely plausible in terms of technology," promised Stewart. "Chickens have a fourth cone in their eye, so they actually see in the ultraviolet range, so we would need to build a new type of LCD - but its possible."

Naturally, Stewart has received mixed reactions to his idea. In fact, most peoples' responses have taken the form of outrage - understandably so. But before 'crying fowl' yourself, understand that Stewart is an artist, and this project is more of a social experiment than it is a serious application. Despite Stewart's deadpan delivery, legitimate efforts to develop the technology, and the deadly-serious launch of the product via a website called Second Livestock, the project is mostly tongue-in-cheek. Mostly.

It's all part of an effort to get us to look closer at how we treat chickens and livestock. But Stewart is not just trying to get us to think more about animal rights and the artificiality of our connection to food. He's also concerned with how far removed we have become from our natural environment. He thinks his VR headset for chickens is a metaphor for modern human living. 

"We live inside these little boxes that aren't inside our natural range, so the conversation [also applies] to humans," he explained.

Even so, Stewart seems entirely willing to take his idea to market if any financiers want to take him seriously. He has certainly put the work in, and he says he’ll collaborate with scientists who want to make it legit, should any offer their services.

Such offers might seem unlikely, but in today's high tech virtual world, reality and fantasy can become easily blurred. At the very least, VR headsets for chickens would certainly make us rethink the meanings of food labels. And in a way, that's part of Stewart's point.

Related on MNN:

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Virtual reality headset for chickens makes them believe they are free-range
An Oculus Rift for poultry could allow birds to explore vast virtual grasslands without really going anywhere at all.