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VR tool lets you see the world through the eyes of an endangered primate

Humans have big brains. That’s what really sets us apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom. Sure, our feet are adapted for long-distance running and we can (sometimes) perform complex choreographies of social collaboration, but if it weren’t for our brains, we wouldn’t be the dominant species we are today.

One of the fascinating features about the human brain is its ability to empathize, to put our minds in another person’s (or animal’s) experience. In that vein, I often wonder what it’d be like to experience the world through the highly specialized senses of another creature. What would it be like to have a dolphin’s sense of sonar, a dog’s sense of smell, or a bird’s ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field?

I’ve never thought about experiencing the world as a tarsier — tiny, night-crawling, critically endangered primates. But my interest is now piqued.

Researchers at Dartmouth College have developed a virtual reality (VR) system that gives it wearers a sense of what it’s like to see the world through their highly specialized eyes.

“Tarsier Goggles is a science education tool that engages students in hands-on scientific concepts in physics, perceptual science, and biology,” Samuel Gochman, a designer who led the development of Tarsier Goggles while studying at Dartmouth, told Digital Trends. The tool simulates “the vision of a primate with extreme adaptations for hunting prey in low-light conditions,” with the aim to help users grasp and appreciate a different worldview.

DALI Lab, Dartmouth College

Gochman’s goal was to take education out of the textbook, by giving students a way to engage in a more interactive learning experience. VR has been shown to have powerful effects on increasing the empathy of users, so, naturally, it provided the ideal platform for the tool.

“The goal of this project is to augment the learning experience in the classroom when the topics involve concepts in optics, vision, or natural selection,” Gochman explained. “Our open-access publication includes a sample curriculum to guide teachers, and the free open-source software is available for use in any classroom with access to VR. This system could also be experienced independently or in other settings like museums.”

Tarsier Goggles allows users to transport to the Bornean rainforest, one of the homes of tarsiers, where they can leap from tree to tree, navigating a maze-like environment that would be difficult for humans to see in but visible for tarsiers.

A paper describing the project was published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach.

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