By: Chris O'Shea
Through a new virtual reality experiment, scientists have connected the world of humans and animals in a unique way. Scientists at the University of Barcelona and University College London used a method called "beaming" to project humans and rats — that were separated by seven miles — into the same virtual room. The process sounds simple, but the impact could be huge. For pet owners.
Beaming, according to The Verge, involves projecting two avatars into one location, through the use of headsets and other technology. "Human participants are given a VR [virtual reality] headset which allows them to control a virtual avatar... while the movements of a rat in a separate enclosure are mapped onto a second avatar," explains The Verge. "A robot in the rat's enclosure represents the human, its movements scaled down to fit the smaller space."
The purpose, says Professor Mel Slate, one of the leads on the experiment, was to see if humans and rats could interact well enough to accomplish simple goals. The experiment was a success. "The results show that the system functioned well and that the humans were able to interact with the rat to fulfil the tasks of the game," writes Slate, in a report on Plos One. "This system opens up the possibility of new applications in the life sciences involving participant observation of and interaction with animals but at human scale."
Slate acknowledges that the experiment is a new way of thinking, and as such, much more research is needed before we make broad proclamations. However, this does set the table for a discussion. "Unlike existing ethological studies of animals, for example, cats and horses, it may be interesting for life science investigators to obtain an entirely different view of animal behaviour, by seeing the animals on a human scale, even represented as humans. This would offer a possibility of participant-observational study of animal behaviour and generally of animal communities in a way never before possible. Such changes of view may offer quite new insights."
As Slate points out, there are a number of ways this technology could be used to expand our knowledge of animals. Imagine, for a moment, being able to understand your cat or dog. When the cat pees on your couch, instead of staring at it and wondering "WTF?" You could strap on your headset and go into their world. When your dog humps a toddler, instead of losing a friend and being thoroughly embarrassed, you could put Slate's tech to use and go into their world. Once there, perhaps you could hump the dog, just to give him a taste of his own medicine. Or something more sensible. But still! The possibilities are enticing. Let's hope Slate's tech keeps going and growing, because forming a link between our pets and us would be amazing. Even if all the dog wants to talk about is biscuits.