How many times have you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and wished you had a holodeck to create holographic illusions of everything from a date on the beach (which didn’t go so well for Geordi La Forge) to exotic interplanetary vacations to Worf’s Klingon training regime that involved battling alien beasts in an unknown jungle? Maybe not that last one.
While a holodeck for humans is still science fiction, lab animals are getting to experience the closest thing possible. Researchers in Europe who also happen to be diehard TNG fans have developed the FreemoVR virtual reality arena to get an almost sci-fi look into how animals perceive things and how they behave when confronted with certain situations. FreemoVR may not be a choose-your-own adventure experience for the test subjects, but it does allow them to move around freely as opposed to the stereotypical rat maze.
Not nearly as expansive as it is on the USS Enterprise, this holodeck is a cylindrical space with flexible computer displays for the wall and floor, with cameras and sensors monitoring their movements from above. The visuals can be altered depending on what kind of reactions the scientists may want to examine further.
“The most important thing is that the animal is actually moving and gets all the appropriate mechanosensory feedback,” said scientist Andrew Straw, who also co-authored a recent publication in Nature Methods. “This is really important for studies of navigation and spatial cognition, because if the animal doesn’t believe it is moving, it will be difficult to study how the animal updates its ‘mental map’ as it moves.”
Indications show that the lab animals may actually believe they are in a certain environment almost as much as Worf may think he’s slicing through some monster hairier than even he is. The mice, fruit flies, and zebrafish used in the experiments reacted to the virtual imagery as if they were facing the same visuals out in the wild. When mice were placed on a platform with the illusion of depth on one end, they tended to stay on the side where the platform seemed lower even though it was actually even on both sides.
What is arguably the most awesome experiment involved projecting a horde of aliens from Space Invaders into a tank of zebrafish. The fish were so convinced the arcade-game aliens were real that they even tried to mimic them by joining the pixelated swarm.
While it does seem far out, what happens in animal brains can actually tell us more about ourselves than we could imagine.
“Humans and mammals have a highly conserved overall brain architecture and many close parallels in the systems related to spatial cognition,” Straw explained. “That’s the reason why many labs use these [animal] systems for models. This way, we can do things such as recording from hundreds or thousands simultaneously, which would not be possible in human experiments.”
With 3D virtual reality not too far in the future, I would gladly run around one of these things made for humans even if I were a test subject with electrical nodes attached to my head.