Rats and humans meet via virtual reality and robotics

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Media captionFootage of the virtual rat world experiment - Courtesy of EventLab

Robots and virtual reality have been used to let rats and humans interact.

A research project has seen human subjects control a rat-sized robot, and rats control a human-shaped avatar in a VR environment.

The meetings were engineered as a way to test "beaming" in which people interact with others via digital representations of themselves.

The research could ultimately give insights into animal behaviour and help humans visit distant places.

Rat rewards

The cross-species interactions were brought about by computer scientists at University College London (UCL) and the University of Barcelona.

Beaming combines both robotics and virtual reality and tries to improve on flatscreen display-based video conferencing techniques.

"Video conferencing does 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 Prof Mandayam Srinivasan from UCL who was part of the research team behind the experiment.

The human subjects involved in the research were in a VR lab in Barcelona. Cameras tracked their movements and were used to control a rat-sized robot that shared a cage with the rodent subjects. The cage was in an animal care facility about 12km (7.4 miles) away from the VR lab.

Similarly, the movements of the rats were tracked in their cage and used to control an avatar projected into the VR world the human subjects experienced via a head-mounted display.

Image caption The rat's avatar mirrored its movements and hugged the wallls

This set-up, said the researchers, let each participant interact with an appropriately-sized subject. The results have been published in the journal Plos One.

Tests were carried out with 18 human subjects who interacted individually with one of two rats.

In their interaction the rats and people played two rounds of a five-minute game. The game was designed to encourage the two subjects to approach each other.

In one of the games, human subjects were told that the avatar they were seeing was controlled by a human when actually its movements were still determined by the rat. This test was done to see if human reactions to avatars changed if they thought a human was involved.

Results suggest that interacting with a rat-sized robot controlled by a human did not bring about big changes in rat behaviour. Generally, said the researchers, the rats hugged the walls while the humans moved around in the middle of the real and virtual spaces as they tried to get closer to the rodent.

Prof Srinivasan said the tests showed that the technology could, in the future, help scientists or others explore places to dangerous or distant to visit any other way.

In addition, he said, they might see animal behaviour in a totally new way "as if it were the behaviour of humans".

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