Thursday, April 12, 2012

What do you get when you cross Franz Kafka, the Matrix and Leeroy Jenkins?


From this article on neurological research. The use of sims give complete control over sensory input, and the use of the roller ball mouse contraption keeps the little buggers basically immobile as they scurry from the light, all this so that the researchers can hook 'em up to sensors that record the brain/nerve activity.
"Virtual reality’s key benefit is having conditions that enable naturalistic behavior but, for example, are constrained enough to record individual nerve cells while an animal is behaving," Vähäsöyrinki says. That is, the creature’s brain activity looks the same as it would if the creature were truly in the wild. But because the creature is not actually moving, scientists can look into its brain and track that activity.
Vähäsöyrinki’s tech is just the latest in a long line of virtual reality systems built to study animal behavior and neurology. Most previous setups were designed for rodents but wouldn’t be good enough to trick animals with fast vision, including day-active insects such as cockroaches. While a human might enjoy a film shown at 24 frames per second, a blowfly, for instance, perceives 200 frames per second. So, to fool a fly or a roach into thinking that what it was seeing was real, Vähäsöyrinki sacrificed the green and blue channels of his projector and used them to maximize frame rate at the expense of color. His virtual reality forest, consisting of about 90 trees, had to be displayed in the gray scale, but the team could produce video with a frame rate of up to 360 Hz projected onto a spherical screen with a diameter of 400 mm.
I suspect the roaches may grow suspicious and demand the red pill, or at least demand that the actual games look as good as their commercials on television. The researchers apparently take seriously the question as to whether or not the roaches can hold such suspicions:
All of which brings up an interesting question: Are these lab animals really like the majority of humans in The Matrix, convinced that the virtual reality they see is the real thing? Or are they just playing along? "I don’t think we have a complete answer," says Christopher Harvey, a neurobiologist at Harvard who formerly worked with the Princeton scientists studying mice with virtual reality. Researchers can never be certain, he says, how an animal perceives the world, so they try to create as immersive an environment as possible. For mice—animals that have eyes on the sides of their heads—the key is to create a screen that covers about 270 degrees horizontally and 80 degrees vertically. Though vision is the most advanced virtual reality system, researchers hope to add olfactory cues to their simulations, or a touch-based stimulus to tickle a mouse’s whiskers or a cockroach’s antennae. Integrating information from several sensory modalities could be helpful for understanding how an animal uses its senses when operating in the real, and virtual, world. Still, Harvey says, "I think ... it’s not clear yet how real the mouse thinks the environment is, or whether the mouse thinks he’s playing a video game."
If roaches can conceptualize the distinction between real and fake, I have some prime Arizona oceanfront real estate to sell you. Maybe the mice. Maybe. But roaches? If so, it is a Kafkaesque world. Gregoooor Jenkins!