Animals

Star Trek's Holodeck Is Here — For Lab Animals, Anyway

Aboard the Federation starships of Star Trek, there's a virtual-reality space known as the holodeck where you can explore any number of virtual environments and interact with all kinds of characters. For animal behavior researchers, that futuristic playroom is becoming a reality. A team led by the University of Freiburg in Germany has created a virtual-reality chamber to watch flies, fish, and mice act like they would in the real world.

Despite All My Rage, I Am Still Just A Rat On A VR Stage

This isn't the first time scientists have used virtual reality to study animal behavior, but their method is a big step up from previous attempts. Before, researchers had to strap animals down or tether them in midair and play virtual footage around them. That's better than nothing, but it's pretty different than their natural environment. The researchers' new device, which they call FreemoVR, surrounds the animals with a 360-degree media screen that changes its orientation based on the behavior of the animal being studied thanks to high-speed cameras tracking its every move.

"We created an immersive, 3-D virtual reality in which the animals could move freely," said lead author Dr. Andrew Straw, "because we wanted our visual scenery to tie in naturally with the animal's own action-perception cycle."

Starship Groupers

That screen gives the researchers a trick up their sleeve. Just like in Star Trek's holodeck, they can introduce new landmarks and characters into the environment and see how their subjects react. For the first experiments with FreemoVR, that included things as simple as vertical pillars and virtual plants, and objects as fantastical as video-game space invaders. In that last example, a zebra fish swam amid swarms of the classic Atari villains, which matched the fish's movements as if it was one of their own. The fish, in turn, altered its movements in response to the space invaders.

In another sign that these experiments were probably dreamed up over a round of beers, the researchers also used FreemoVR to see if mice are afraid of heights. They placed individual mice on a circular track that straddled two floor environments, one designed to look like it was close (a large checkerboard pattern), and one designed to look like it was a long way down (a small checkerboard pattern). The mice preferred to spend most of their time hanging out in the shallow end.

It may sound funny, but this holodeck solves a big problem in animal behavior research: it's impossible to directly manipulate the interactions between multiple animals. Letting animals move freely in a virtual reality space allows the researchers to add virtual animals and manipulate their behavior, thereby observing what their test animals do in various situations.

We Built a 'Holodeck' for Animals!

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Written by Ashley Hamer September 19, 2017