Researchers Submerge Animals in Virtual Reality to Study their Behaviour

A group of researchers from the Vienna Biocentre in Austria had developed a virtual reality system which they used to test the behaviour of mice, fruit flies and zebrafish when placed in a host of different environments.

The system, called FreemoVR, immersed the animals in arenas where both the walls and floors were computer displays, depicting photorealistic images that respond to the animals’ movements in real time, giving the illusion of traversing real space.

For this purpose, up to 10 high-speed cameras were positioned around the arena, capable of updating the imagery within milliseconds of each animal’s movements.

Sounds familiar? If you’re a fan of Star Trek, this probably sounds eerily (or, more likely – excitingly) similar to a holodeck – the fictional facility within the show’s universe that reorganises matter in accordance with instructions to render tangible and fully functional environments.

A mouse navigating a checkerboard floor in the FreemoVR platform. Image courtesy of Straw Lab.

Obviously, the system discussed in the paper, published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Methods, is nowhere near that level of sophistication, yet certain similarities apply – namely, the fact that upon entering the arena, animals had “no need to wear special clothing or headgear” and were immediately immersed in a “computer-controlled environment, which can be made completely realistic or arbitrarily unrealistic”.

In the study, test subjects navigated virtual pillars, floating rings, checkerboard floors, plants, and a swarm of digital aliens from Space Invaders. The arenas even provided distinctive “portals” that could, once triggered, instantly “teleport” the user to an entirely different environment.

Importantly, the animals found the virtual worlds quite believable. For instance, mice tended to stay away from platforms that seemed suspended at great heights, and zebrafish kept near the centre of the bowl when confronted with swarms of Space Invaders.

The new tether-free platform could allow researchers to study which genes and brain circuits play what roles under different circumstances by varying both the environments and the DNA of animal subjects.

“Brains evolved in the real world, and to understand how and why neural circuits process information in the way they do, we need to understand them in this context,” said co-senior author on the study Andre Straw.


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