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