Beaming Technology Changes Level of Human-Animal Interaction

November 1, 2012, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

My favourite character in the X-Men, besides Wolverine, is the Nightcrawler, because of his ability to teleport. Teleportation has been a fascination since childhood, to me as well as scientists, and now we may have gained one step closer to that technology.

While the recent research didn’t actually demonstrate teleportation, it was something closer referred to as ‘beaming’ and the experiment involved human-animal interaction. Using advanced tech and scientific know-how, scientists have been successful in beaming a person into a rat facility, allowing close, level interaction between the human and rat.

The research article was published in PLOS ONE, and it detailed the research whereby a rat could interact with a rat-sized robot controlled by a human participant at a different location. Simultaneously, the human participant can interact with the human-sized avatar, which is under control by the movements of the rat.

Computer scientists at UCL and the University of Barcelona have been on top of the ‘beaming’ idea for quite some time, and last year they had managed to digitally beam a scientist in Barcelona to London, for an interview with a journalist. Beaming, I guess we can say, is kind of a digital teleportation.

According to the researchers, beaming is the process of digitally transporting a representation of oneself to a distant place, where the person will be able to interact with the people there, as if that person is actually present there. The process involves a combination of virtual reality and teleoperator systems.

The person who is digitally transported will be represented in the destination by a physical robot. Like in the current experiment, the human participants were in a virtual reality lab at the Mundet campus of the University of Barcelona, while the rat was located 12kms away in an animal care facility at Bellvitge.

The rat’s movements were tracked in its arena and the tracked data was sent over the internet to the computers in Mundet which were running the virtual reality simulation. The information gathered from the tracking data was used to control a virtual human character or an avatar that represented the rat.

So each time the rat moved, the avatar moved, in a representation of the rat arena, but scaled up to the human size. So the human participant also shared the same virtual arena with a humanoid avatar.

The movement of the human participant was also tracked and send to the computers in Bellvitge, where a small robot was controlled in the rat arena. Whenever the human moved, the robot moved.

Professor Mandayam Srinivasan, author of the paper from the UCL Department of Computer Science and MIT, spoke on the subject:

“Beaming is a step beyond approaches such as video conferencing which do not give participants the physical sensation of being in the same shared space, and certainly not the physical capability to actually carry out actions in that space. The process demonstrated here not only shows the range of our technology, but also provides a new tool for scientists, explorers or others to visit distant and alien places without themselves being placed in any kind of danger, and importantly, to be able to see animal behaviour in a totally new way – as if it were the behaviour of humans.”

Professor Mel Slater, also from the UCL Department of Computer Science and also ICREA, University of Barcelona, explained about the possibilities in the research:

“In the paper we used the idea of representing the rat as if it were a human, but there would be many other possibilities. One idea is that using this technology behavioral scientists could get insights into behaviour by observing it, and taking part in it, through this quite different filter. However, our primary goal was to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in this technology.”

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