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Humans Interact with Rats in Virtual Reality

By Ross Pomeroy

When pondering the interaction between humans and rats, various images may come to mind. You might think of an elderly woman dressed in vintage clothing, her head adorned with a flowered hat, screaming bloody murder at the sight of a single rodent. You might picture a pack of rats roaming the plague-infested streets of Europe in the 1300s. Or, if you've seen Pixar's Ratatouille, you might visualize a rat helping a hopeless young chef bake a soufflé.

But odds are you won't think of humans and rats interacting in virtual reality. Well, that's just what a research team led by EVENT Lab at the University of Barcelona recently accomplished. They detail the process in the Oct. 31st publication of PLoS ONE.

The interactions were carried out last year by affixing an immersive virtual reality head-mounted display to a human participant. With the headset on, the subject could see a square virtual room with a single picture on each wall. The individual could move about the virtual room by using a hand-controlled joystick that could propel them backwards or forwards in whatever direction their head was turned.

Meanwhile, in a laboratory 12 kilometers away, a rat and a tiny robot were placed in an exact, miniature replica of the virtual room. The robot followed the precise movements of the human controller in the virtual reality room. In this manner, the rat was indirectly reacting with the human on its own size scale. (Image Below: a) The miniature room for the robot and rat. b) The tiny, human-controlled robot. c) A top-down image of the tiny room with the rat in the top left corner and t he robot in the bottom right.)

 

The human could see the rat within the virtual world, but the animal was represented by a human avatar that mimicked it's actual movements. (See below.)

Human participants were instructed to interact with the rat for five minutes, during which time they were asked to play a simple game that encouraged them to attempt to move the rat around the room. The human-controlled robot was laced with rat food jelly to entice the rat to follow it.

The researchers believe that the system could one day be used to allow life science investigators to interact with animals in a novel medium, potentially revealing entirely new insights into animal or even human behavior. Since the system is still in its infancy, potential applications may materialize in the future as robot and virtual reality technologies grow more advanced.

Check out a video of the experiment here.

Source: Normand J-M, Sanchez-Vives MV, Waechter C, Giannopoulos E, Grosswindhager B, et al. (2012) Beaming into the Rat World: Enabling Real-Time Interaction between Rat and Human Each at Their Own Scale. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48331. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048331

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