What can we learn from a VR for Animals Holodeck?

With the rapid advance in immersive technologies, scientists have created a VR for animals environment to study the behavior of mice, fruit flies, and fish. The system is called FreemoVR and looks much like one of the expensive CAVE systems you see at research universities. A circular area is surrounded by moveable screens so that the animal thinks it’s in a different environment.

Based on the work of Andrew Straw, who specializes in neural circuits, and his colleague and co-author Dr. Kristin Tessmar-Raible at the University of Freiburg, the VR platform seeks to answer some basic questions about animal behavior. From the University of Freiburg press release,

How do people orient themselves when they are in a new area? How do we use street signs or houses, for instance, to estimate the distance we have traveled? Put simply: how do we update our mental map? Neuroscientists have been studying such questions in animals to learn about the basic principles of spatial cognition.

Andrew Straw notes,

Something like the holodeck from Star Trek would enable key experiments in which we could artificially decouple an animal’s movement from its perception.

Since the animals are free to move in FreemoVR, the initial results are fascinating. Experiments have been done with mice and heights, zebra fish responding to other fish and the movement of fruit flies.

VR for animals experiments
The experimenters control the fly’s position (red circle) and its flight direction by providing strong visual motion stimuli. Left: live camera footage, right: plot of flight positions. Photo: https://strawlab.org/freemovr

As a VR for animals platform, the system isn’t perfect. But it’s significantly more accurate than what we’ve used in the past (which often involved pinning the animals in place). However, if humans are dealing with screen door effects in virtual reality due to low-resolution headsets, we face other challenges with the animal kingdom:

Because FreemoVR uses computer screens and projectors made for humans, it doesn’t show images that have polarized light, for instance. Unlike people, many animals can see polarized light and use it as a sort of compass to know where to go.

The implications for human beings in using VR for animals

There are obvious implications for human beings in these kinds of projects. Most VR installations focus on basic experiences, entertainment, information (and journalism) and social activism. It’s only at a few sites such as Stanford and USC where the focus has been on human behavior. At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (founded in 2003), there’s a long history of research projects involving human subjects which rely on a carefully vetted process.

Think back for a moment to Stanley Milgram’s experiments at Yale University. Using only the most basic technology, Milgram was able to create disturbingly intense emotional experiences in the participants. They were controversial enough that no university would approve such a project today. With VR hijacking our senses, you wonder where how far the research projects – and popular experiences – will go.

Even a simple VR project (which is really only 360° video) such as Animal Equity’s iAnimal can be deeply disturbing and controversial. It can be a powerful tool for nonprofits and journalists – think of Nonny de la Pena’s “advocacy journalism”.

The FreemoVR project is incredibly innovative. But as we move into the brave new world of using VR for research, we’ll need to watch where it’s going. For while the benefits to scientific understanding are remarkable and mark the beginning of a new era, we’re playing with fire. Not only for ourselves, but potentially with the animal kingdom as well.

Mouse and heights - VR for animals
VR height aversion exerperiments in mice.