Lab animals can now enter immersive virtual reality environments thanks to researchers in Andrew Straw’s lab at the University of Freiburg in Germany. Dubbed FreemoVR, the system resembles the holodeck from Star Trek and monitors the movements of common lab animals like mice, zebrafish, and fruit flies, projecting photorealistic environments onto a screen to simulate movement in the real world.
“To understand how an animal responds behaviorally to visual stimuli, I always wanted something like the holodeck in Star Trek,” Straw, a neurobiologist at the Vienna Biocenter, told Digital Trends. “Gradually, it dawned on me that a lot of the bits and pieces I had built over the years could be extended and combined to achieve what we now have done.”
Straw and his team arranged as many as 10 high-speed cameras to track the position of the animal as it ventured around the space. Within seconds, the FreemoVR software projects a new image, from digital pillars to checkerboard floors, and even Space Invader aliens. Unlike human VR systems, there is no need for the animals to wear special garments or headgear.
This might sound like a bunch of fun and games but the researchers hope the system will help them study animal behavior in new and unique ways.
Straw and his team found that the animals often responded to the various environments as though they were real. Mice demonstrated caution when the environment depicted a scene suspended up high. Flies flew around the digital pillars, as seen in the video above. And zebrafish showed a propensity to swim after a photo-realistic virtual fish when the digital model matched its swim direction.
“If we do not put the animal’s visual sense in strong conflict with other senses, we do not find any differences between behavioral responses to ‘real world’ versus VR stimuli,” Straw said.
The virtual worlds were not all realistic. Along with Space Invaders, the researchers intend to experiment with more cartoonish and gamified environments, including one that simulates teleportation animals.
“We could test stimuli that would be impossible to create in the real world,” Straw said. “So far fish seem OK with being teleported virtually!”
A paper detailing the study was published this week in the journal Nature Methods.
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