Observing animal behaviour just got taken to a new level, with researchers at the University of Vienna creating a Star Trek-like holodeck with which to study fish, flies and mice.
Virtual reality technology has found its way into a variety of scientific fields, for example, in the study of human behaviour, psychology and health care. Pain management is one area that has had proven success with the use of virtual reality, where immersion in a virtual environment can help alleviate pain symptoms and allow people to better tolerate medical procedures.
And, like it or not, your fear of heights (along with other phobias) can be treated through a process called graded exposure therapy, which benefits from VR technology that can control the level and pace of a patient’s exposure to their given fearful environment. One research institute in Montreal is using VR to help schizophrenics confront their own demons within an immersive environment.
Now, researchers are finding VR to be useful in the study of non-human animals, too, as scientists with the Institute of Biology at the University of Freiburg in Germany have created their very own creature-friendly virtual reality environment.
“We wanted to create a holodeck for animals so that they would experience a reactive, immersive environment under computer control so that we could perform experiments that would reveal how they see objects, the environment, and other animals,” says Andrew Straw, professor at the University of Freiburg, in a press release.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Methods, Straw and colleagues explain their new creation, FreemoVR, a program for building behavioural arenas fitted with computer displays as walls or floors and other projection surfaces, allowing animals to move about in their species-specific fashion (swimming, flying or walking, for example) while being exposed to different visual stimuli.
For the fish experiment, the researchers explored the rules used by zebra fish and medaka fish for social interaction, getting fish to interact with its virtual companions in its tank. For mice, the researchers tested the animals’ height-aversion by virtually placing them on a high-up platform, and for the fruit flies, they tested their ability to maneuver around perceived objects.
“I am particularly excited about the possibility to mimic more complex, naturalistic environments and to test more advanced brain functions in medaka and zebrafish. says Kristin Tessmar-Raible of the Max F. Perutz Laboratories at the University of Vienna in Austria, who led most of the fish work. “It will help us to better understand brain functions and to what extent we can use these diurnal vertebrates as models for neuropsychological malfunctions.”
The researchers used graphics cards from gaming software to develop their FreemoVR rooms, with Straw saying that the research is indebted to the gaming industry for its innovations. “I am very grateful to the computer games industry,” said Straw, to Motherboard. “Our entire research program would basically not be possible without gamers having created a market for most of the equipment that we use