Finally, Humans Can Hang Out with Rats by Using Virtual Reality and Robotics

Science, you're kind of crazy -- especially when you're doing stuff like this.

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Screenshot of the virtual environment. Three of the four posters are visible in the image as well as the two avatars representing both the participant and the rat.

Science, you’re kind of crazy — especially when you’re doing stuff like this: “beaming” humans into animal care facilities and rats into laboratories, allowing them to interact with each other on the same scale, sort of like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meets The Surrogates.

Because you’ve been waiting all your life to hang out with a rat, right?

Not literally beaming — no human or rat molecules flashed through time and space. Matter was not converted to energy then back to matter. Bodies weren’t quantum dematerialized and rematerialized on disco-dance-style platforms. And no, actual shrink-rays were not involved.

But you might say virtual ones were. Using a virtual reality simulation and a robot, researchers have successfully paired a human with a rat, allowing each to interact with the other at the same scale, simultaneously, in both a virtual and actual arena.

We all know how virtual reality works, right? Stick something on your head, say a motion-tracking helmet or pair of goggles capable of conveying visual information and presto: the illusion of being in a virtually real environment. Today’s VR simulations are crude by filmic standards, granted — nothing like what Neo and pals get up to in The Matrix when they slide those slim metal spikes into their cerebellums — but more than capable of rendering plausible simulated vistas.

Imagine a virtual arena inhabited by two humans avatars — one is actually human, the other isn’t. In fact this other human-like avatar is actually a rat in another location altogether, its body and movements monitored by tracking software and translated to the virtual arena in human form. This is what the human wearing the VR helmet sees.

What the rat on the other end sees is a real-world robotic rat, linked through software to the human wearing the VR helmet. When the human moves, the robo-rat moves. In this way, the rat can interact with the human virtually pretending to be a rat, and the human can interact with the rat virtually translated into human form.

When the human wearing the VR helmet moves, the software tells robo-rat to move. When the actual rat moves, the tracking software tells the virtual avatar representing the rat in VR-space to move. Each one interacts at the scale they’re accustomed to, virtual reality technology and robotics dovetailing to produce a crude approximation of — if not the nuances of human or rat expression — at least their spatial relationship.

It’s all part of a somewhat bizarre-sounding research project conducted by computer scientists at University College London and the University of Barcelona to use “immersive virtual reality” (traditional VR) and “teleoperator” systems (think remote-controlled robotics) to allow wildly different species — rats and humans — to interact in previously unheard of ways. The research was recently published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLOS ONE.

In the experiment, the humans using VR technology were in a lab at the University of Barcelona, while the actual rat was located about seven miles away in an animal care facility in Bellvitge, a neighborhood in Barcelona. The VR head-mounted display was an NVIS nVisor SX111, a model featuring dual SXGA displays (1280 x 1024) with a total 111-degree field of view. The software used was E-Semble’s XVR – essentially a virtual reality training tool.

Why all the song and dance just to put rats and humans in a room together? To allow us to study animal behavior in new ways, for starters, say the researchers, but also to spur a possible rethink about stuff like: video conferencing and carrying out joint actions in “shared space” (we’ve long seen this in sci-fi movies using variations on holography, for instance) or virtually exploring dangerous destinations, from the depths of our own oceans, say, to distant planets.

“In the paper we used the idea of representing the rat as if it were a human, but there would be many other possibilities,” said UCL and University of Barcelona professor Mel Slater. “One idea is that using this technology behavioral scientists could get insights into behavior by observing it, and taking part in it, through this quite different filter. However, our primary goal was to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in this technology.”

Aren’t there inherent issues with “faking” out the human and rat by essentially draping them in rat and human costumes, respectively? Where’s the value in anthropomorphizing — attributing human characteristics to something — an animal in a lab anyway?

It’s difficult to say, and the research paper doesn’t take up that question, but it paints the research as of possible interest to life science researchers, who could “obtain an entirely different view of animal behavior, by seeing the animals on a human scale, even represented as humans,” adding that “this would offer a possibility of participant-observational study of animal behavior and generally of animal communities in a way never before possible.”

But in the long run, I’m betting the real upside of pairing IVR with teleoperator systems is going to be human-human interaction. You know, like on those crazy-long space voyages. You’ve heard about the glowing pillow with a heartbeat? The one that connects long-distance lovers? Like that.