Avatars Let Humans And Rats Interact Through Virtual Reality
November 2, 2012

Beaming Technology Lets Humans And Animals Interact Through Virtual Reality Avatars

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers have successfully ℠beamed´ a human into a virtual reality rat facility, allowing the rat and person to interact with one another on the same scale via digital representations of themselves.

The researchers enabled the rat to interact with a rat-sized robot controlled by a human participant in a different location. At the same time, the human participant (while in a virtual environment) interacts with a human-sized avatar controlled by the movements of the distant rat.

The technology could someday help scientists study animal behavior in an entirely new way, the researchers said.

The scientists had been working on the idea of ℠beaming´ for years, which they define as digitally transporting a representation of a person to a distant place, where they could interact with others as if they were actually there.

Beaming combines both robotics and virtual reality, and attempts to improve on flat screen display-based video conferencing techniques.

“Beaming is a step beyond approaches such as video conferencing which do not give participants the physical sensation of being in the same shared space, and certainly not the physical capability to actually carry out actions in that space,” said study author Professor Mandayam Srinivasan from the University College London Department of Computer Science.

Last year, the researchers digitally beamed a scientist in Barcelona to London to be interviewed by a journalist.

The beaming is achieved through a combination of virtual reality and tele-operator systems. Ideally, a physical robot represents the visitor to the remote location there.

During the current study, human participants were in a virtual reality lab at the Mundet campus of the University of Barcelona in Spain, while the rat was located around seven and a half miles away in an animal care facility in Bellvitge.

The researchers used tracking technology to follow the movements of the rat, and sent that data via the Internet to servers running the virtual reality simulation in Mundet.

The tracking information was then used to control a virtual human character (avatar) that represented the rat, so that whenever the rat moved its avatar did as well. All actions took place in a representation of the rat arena scaled up to human size.

Similarly, the human participant shared the virtual arena, which resembled a room with some pictures on the walls, with a humanoid avatar.

The researchers tracked the movements of the human in the VR environment, and sent the data to computers in Bellvitge that controlled a small robot located in the rat arena.

Whenever the human moved in the VR space, the robot moved in the rat space.

Once everything was set up, the rat interacted with a rat-sized robot that represented the remotely located human, and the human interacted with a human sized avatar that represented the remotely located rat.

“What is different in our system is that the human is represented in the animal environment through a physical surrogate. In shared virtual environments all participants are in a virtual reality system. In our case only the human is in such a system, whereas the animals are located in their own physical environment without any need for virtual displays,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which was published Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE.

In total, 18 human subjects interacted individually with one of two rats, playing two rounds of a five-minute game designed to encourage the two subjects to approach one another. In one of the games, human subjects were told that a human controlled the avatar they were seeing, when actually its movements were still determined by the rat. This test was done to determine whether human reactions to avatars changed if they believed a human was involved.

Generally speaking, the rats hugged the walls of the arena while the humans moved around in the center of the real and virtual spaces as they tried to get closer to the rat, the researchers said.

These results suggest that interacting with a rat-sized robot controlled by a human did not bring about significant changes in rat behavior.

Srinivasan told Discovery News that while the team was more focused on the technology and getting that to work, there were interesting questions about behavioral science that were explored. For instance, most users know they are interacting with a rat, even though it looks like a human in the virtual space. But what if you told them it was a human on the other end of the connection? Would that change their behavior?

Researcher Mel Slater, a Professor at the UCL Department of Computer Science and also ICREA, University of Barcelona, said the study offers plenty of opportunities for additional research in behavioral science.

“In the paper we used the idea of representing the rat as if it were a human, but there would be many other possibilities. 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.”

Virtual reality like this can also give scientists studying animals in the wild a better tool for observing behavior, Srinivasan said. Historically, the only options were to mount a camera in a given location, or strap one on to the animal under study. Radio tags could then be used to track movement. However, there hasn't been a good method for actually interacting, he said.

Srinivasan said the new beaming technology could someday help scientists explore places too remote or dangerous to visit any other way.

“The process demonstrated here not only shows the range of our technology, but also provides a new tool for scientists, explorers or others to visit distant and alien places without themselves being placed in any kind of danger, and importantly, to be able to see animal behavior in a totally new way - as if it were the behavior of humans.”

Image 2 (below): Virtual reality scene showing the participant's and the rat's virtual avatars. Credit University College London