Researchers at the University of Barcelona and University College London (UCL) have used a custom-made virtual reality (VR) system to allow humans and rats to interact on the same level. Writing in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE earlier this week, the scientists describe the process as 'beaming' — human participants are given a VR headset which allows them to control a virtual avatar, shown above, while the movements of a rat in a separate enclosure are mapped on to a second avatar. A robot in the rat's enclosure represents the human, its movements scaled down to fit the smaller space.
During the experiment, the rats and humans were located more than seven miles apart, at different locations near the University of Barcelona's Mundet campus. Participants were encouraged to play a game in the virtual environment, and in at least one round were told that their counterpart was another human being. According to Professor Mel Slater at UCL, the study was designed primarily to show off the possibilities of the technology, but it could be used to obtain valuable data on human-animal interaction: "behavioural scientists could get insights into behaviour by observing it, and taking part in it, through this quite different filter."