In the film "Avatar," humans are linked to

genetically engineered bodies so they can communicate more easily with the

alien Na'vi. A group of computer scientists in the U.K. is making that a

reality –- but with rats.

The team, based at University College London and the

University of Barcelona, used a system of movement-tracking software, cameras

and laptops, along with a virtual-reality headset. The set-up also included a

rat in a pen.

Clever Video Game Controls Curiosity on Mars

To interact with the rat, a person puts on the VR headset and

sees a virtual room. A camera with tracking software picks up the user's

movements and duplicates them in a virtual room. Meanwhile another camera looks

at the rat. In the virtual room, the (human) user sees another person, which is

the avatar of the rat.

DNEWS VIDEO: Get Behind the Science of Avatar, Caddy Shack and More

As the rat moves, so does its avatar. The tracking software

picks up both the movement of the rat around its pen and where its face is

pointing and duplicates that in the virtual environment. So the human user

sees a person running around the room, with his or her face pointing in the

same direction as the rat's is.

As for the rat, it gets to interact with a

robot that looks like a hockey puck. The robot has a bit of jam attached to it

to entice the rat away from the walls of the pen. As the human moves around the room (both real and virtual), the robot duplicates the movement. The whole

set up is structured as a game: get a point for convincing the rat to interact.

Mandayam Srinivasan, director of the Touch Lab at MIT, is

one of the co-authors of the research, which was published in PLOS One. He told

Discovery News that while the group was more focused on the technology and getting

that to work, there were interesting questions about behavioral science that were explored.

Beamatron Turns Everything Into a Game

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?

Virtual reality like this can also give scientists studying

animals in the wild a better tool for observing behavior. Usually, the only

options are to mount a camera in a given spot, or strap one on to the animal in

question. Radio tags can be used to track movement. But there hasn't been a

good method for actually interacting. Srinivasan said it's even possible to

envision using robotic insects.

Image: University College London