Help Create the “Koko App”

The Gorilla Foundation is looking for a leading-edge tech partner to help us develop the “Koko App” — as a way to save gorillas from extinction, improve their lives in captivity, continue our ground-breaking dialogue with them,  and inspire our children to become “Voices for Nature” capable of practicing conservation through communication.

The Koko App will help everyone (kids, adults, teachers, gorilla caregivers, conservationists, scientists …) learn American Sign Language (ASl) from the gorilla who mastered it in a few short years.  It will also reveal the mind of one of our closest living species to be much like ours, and thus invoke the empathy needed to save gorillas from extinction.

We have a mockup design and years of multimedia content and expertise.  However, we don’t have the expertise to develop a multi-platform phone app that will appeal and be intuitive to use by millions worldwide — from the US to Africa (where free-living gorillas are endangered, and cell phones are now highly accessible)

That’s where you can help!


Who is Koko and What is the Koko App?


Koko is the world’s most famous gorilla! Known mainly for her ability to communicate in sign language (she learned over 1000 signs, and understood even more spoken words), and her gentleness with (and empathy for) other species, she almost single-handedly changed the paradigm of gorillas from “King Kong” to “Koko’s Kitten.”




Video Intro to Koko and the Koko App

Though Koko passed away in 2018, our 5-decade interspecies communication study with her produced an immense multimedia research archive.  The Koko App is designed to apply this rich archive to transmit her legacy to current and future generations of humans and other great apes.  In particular, it will enable humans and gorillas to learn sign language from Koko herself (an inspiring teacher) and to apply this language (which is valuable in its own right) to interpret Koko’s videos and books in ways that will expand interspecies empathy, promote conservation, and continue our dialogue with other animals.


The Koko App is also intended to help gorilla caregivers (at zoos) begin a dialogue with all captive gorillas, which will improve their care in captivity (by empowering them with more autonomy), enrich the “visitor” experience, create more gorilla ambassadors like Koko, and inspire children around the world to add their voices to Koko’s and preserve Nature.

If the Koko App is our “golden egg”, then the Koko Archive is the “goose that laid it”.  By mining the Koko Archive (digitizing/preserving decades of multimedia data, translating, analyzing and editing it), we can continue to expand the breadth and depth of the Koko App for years to come, and even involve the general public in a “crowd-sourced” effort to help with the research.  Thus, we have the content, the preliminary design, and even a mockup.  What we lack is the experience to convert the mockup into a world-class multi-platform app that can be used by millions around the world — including in African gorilla habitat countries, where cell phones are now abundant.

Koko App Functions & Features (MockUp)

The following design mockup images indicate the kind of functions and features we’d like to offer in the KokoApp.   Each of these images represents a short video clip — from about 5 seconds each for individual sign demo clips, to about 30 seconds for Koko-and-Penny dialogue videos.

1) Learn Signs Directly from Koko (“Video Dictionary”)


Look up over 100 of Koko’s favorite signs by name (eg, EAT, DRINK, MORE, LOVE, THANK YOU) and watch her demonstrate them in short, video clips.   For additional examples, you can also look up longer “Dialogue Videos” of Koko signing the word in context or in dialogue with Penny or another caregiver.   

Or you can start with these longer, more interesting Dialogue Videos (eg, the story of Koko and her kitten, All Ball, or Koko’s visit by Robin Williams or Mister Rogers) and then learn all of the signs in these videos, so that you no longer need subtitles.

Over time, we can routinely add more and more of Koko’s 1,000 word sign vocabulary, as well as more videos — as we continue digitizing and cataloging our 5-decade multimedia Project Koko research archive.






2) Ask Penny (Koko’s Mentor) for Clarification


Koko doesn’t always sign perfectly.  Sometimes she takes an ASL (American Sign Language) sign and modifies it slightly to adapt to her (gorilla) hand structure, or her personality.  For example,  Koko signs love with her open hands touching her shoulders, while the conventional ASL way is to do it with closed fists (which sounds ironic). 

Thus, when you click on Penny’s name for a given sign, Penny (Koko’s lifelong teacher and friend) and caregiver Darlene, who’s a native signer, demonstrate both the way the sign is done in ASL and the Koko’s GSL (Gorilla Sign Language) modification — if there is one.   Often Koko does the sign as it’s taught in ASL classes, in which case Penny makes that clear too.


3) Look Up Signs by Description (a powerful way to learn sign language)


When you know the name of the sign you’re looking for you simply look it up by the name of the sign (as in the example above for “Thank You”).  This is how you might use the app when you’re first learning ASL, and have a specific vocablulary you want to master.

However, if you’re watching (say) Koko in videos and have no idea what she’s signing, then how can you translate it?

You can look up signs by a Description of their Position, Configuration and/or Movement  — the 3 parameters that uniquely define a sign.  So, for example, if you see Koko alternately beating her chest, you might Search for all signs with Position = “Chest”, which would bring up multiple results, showing you Koko signing: Gorilla, Koko, Polite, Sorry, Love and Thirsty.  By comparing the different images/videos and descriptions for each of these signs, you could quickly decide that “Gorilla” was the result that best matched the video you were watching.

Not only is this a good way to learn signs — by watching real videos of Koko signing and learning to translate them without subtitles — but it’s also a way for people to help The Gorilla Foundation translate our vast interspecies communication video database, and thus perform crowd-sourced research (aka “Citizen Science“).

4) Watch Interspecies Communication Videos; Help Translate

The Koko App will come with a large collection of compelling videos of gorilla Koko (and Michael) communicating with humans — covering all kinds of topics and themes, from empathy, to eating,  play,  love, grief, movies, music and conservation.

You’ll be able to watch these videos with or without subtitles defining the signs Koko is using.   And you’ll be able to stop the video at any point and “learn” a sign of interest, by clicking on the sign name (which will appear below the video).  And using the “lookup sign by description” option, you’ll be able to follow — or even translate — interpecies communication videos that have not yet been subtitled or check the translations offered by others.   You’ll thus have the option to simply enjoy the process of interspecies communication, or to participate as a “citizen scientist” in crowd-sourced research with The Gorilla Foundation.

5) Read Koko eBooks (with Links to Sign Demos)



All of The Gorilla Foundation’s books — for both children and adults — will be available as “eBooks” within the Koko App.  Not only will you be able to read these books for free in a convenient navigational environment, you’ll also be able to click on sign words (within interspecies dialogues) that appear in these books,  and bring up a popup video teaching you (or reminding you of) the sign.

The initial release of the Koko App can include all of the following eBooks, with selected links to individual signs and related videos:

  • Koko’s Kitten (ages 2-12, and 21+)

  • Koko’s Story (ages 2+)

  • A Wish for Koko (ages 7+)

  • Michael’s Dream (ages 12+)

  • The Education of Koko (ages 15+)


6) Learn About Conservation from Gorilla Michael (a bushmeat orphan)


Because of the skepticism people often have around interspecies communication, videos are often more powerful than books in overcoming the credibility gap.  This is especially important in Africa, where we have distributed Koko’s books to students and poachers in gorilla habitat countries, but have not (until now) been able to show them what we mean.  Due to the recent mass adoption of cell phones in Africa, we can now overcome this hurdle where needed most.

7) Upload and Share Videos of Zoo Gorillas to Learn their Natural Gestures