The participant’s movements are also transferred to a baseball-size robot in the tiny arena seven miles away. The robot, in turn, shares that space with a free-roaming laboratory rat. Cameras track the rat, and software transfers the animal’s movements to a second digital human within the virtual arena, accompanying the participant’s avatar.
“The rat’s positions and orientation are represented to the human as if it is another human,” Srinivasan explains. The rat, meanwhile, interacts
with the robot in the real world.
The unusual experiment could be an opportunity for scientists to glean new insights into rat behavior, but a recent test run revealed an interesting human quirk. When participants were fooled into thinking that a human — not a rat — was controlling the other avatar, they gave it more personal space.
“We maintain our distance between people,” explains Slater. He and Srinivasan hope this technology could allow humans to interact with animals in their natural environments, giving scientists closer-than-ever insight into how they behave.