March 22, 2012 | 3
On the evening of Wednesday, March 21, a mouse scurried into a storm drain near the southeast corner of Central Park in New York City. If anyone noticed the mouse at all, whatever shallow impression the sight of a Manhattan rodent made on their minds likely vanished within seconds, rinsed away by a new wave of sensory experience—an approaching car, a ringing cell phone. But the mouse, whose name is Gerald, is worth remembering. Gerald hurried beneath the city streets to deliver the keynote speech at the inaugural meeting of the Association of Laboratory Animals Exposed to Virtual Environments.
Taking his place behind a lectern made of matchboxes, Gerald looked out at the audience. Nearest the lectern, several mice sat on their haunches, whiskers twitching. Above them, a dense swarm of fruit flies constantly redefined its elastic boundaries. A dozen silver zebrafish heads bobbed in the water, near the edge of the sewer pipe. And though he could not see them, Gerald knew that many tiny transparent nematodes wriggled all around him.
“Brethren,” Gerald said in a rather booming voice with no hint of squeakiness, “we are gathered here tonight to discuss a recent development in the lives of laboratory animals—the introduction of virtual environments. Our keepers have fooled us. We have been made to run through pixelated mazes in search of false rewards, to avoid illusory obstacles mid-flight, to believe we were swimming in the ocean, though we never left our tanks. During these acts of willful deceit, our caretakers probed our brains—in the name of science, as always. Yesterday I learned that scientists have draped the cloak of virtual reality on yet another proud species.”
Gerald gestured to a shadowy corner, from which emerged two cockroaches.
“Like my fellow mice, our brother cockroaches were plopped onto a plastic ball that spins every which way, but stays in place. Surrounding the ball was a large hollow dome, onto which was projected the virtual world. As our brother cockroaches scampered through what they thought was the forest, scientists measured the activity of their brain cells. Apparently, studying how neurons fire in cockroaches and mice and nematodes offers insights into the nature of human diseases. But the rationale for such experiments is not our concern. Tonight, we must reach a decision: shall we tolerate the falsehood that is virtual reality in exchange for the safety, the comfort, the food we enjoy in our labs? Or shall we pull the cloak from our eyes and never return?”
The zebrafish whipped their tails to peer as far out of the water as possible. The fruit fly swarm sputtered like a firecracker. The cockroaches took a few steps back into the shadows. The mice groomed each other furiously. And the nematodes may have started wriggling with extra vigor, though it was hard to tell.
Gerald placed both paws on the lectern and took a deep breath. “Many of you, I am sure, loathe virtual reality,” he said. “Illusion is an insidious prison—one formed not from bars or Plexiglas, but from thought itself. We have no choice but to—”
At this point, one of the mice near the front of the podium stood on her hind legs and raised her right paw. “Friends,” she said, trembling, “I must interrupt, for I have something important to confess: I love virtual reality.” Vicky, as this mouse was called, looked at the faces of the animals around her: she saw a mixture of shock and bemused confusion, but no anger. Gerald waved at her to continue.
“First of all,” Vicky said, “the exercise has done wonders for my thighs. Hamster wheels are great, but nothing is as liberating or as demanding as that plastic ball. And with all the advances in computer graphics and projection technology, who wouldn’t want to slip into a simulation now and then? Why should humans have all the fun? True, we did not understand what was happening at first. Some of us thought we were dreaming; others thought we had been abandoned in the wild. But now that we are more familiar with the technology, I cannot find any reason to run away from virtual reality. What it boils down to is this: scientists have equipped our labs with interactive IMAX theaters. And we have a lifetime supply of VIP tickets.”
A third mouse raised his paw. “I too love virtual reality!” he said. The fruit flies rearranged themselves so that the letters VR hovered in the air. The cockroaches danced together. And the zebrafish dove in and out of the water, like dolphins playing in a boat’s wake.
Inwardly, Gerald breathed a sigh of relief. In truth, he had learned to love the thrill of mastering digital labyrinths—a thrill that had replaced his initial bewilderment. But, burdened by the duty of rallying his friends with a rousing keynote address, he had not found the courage to voice what he assumed were unpopular opinions. “Very well,” Gerald said, “very well. If we are all in agreement, let us return to our labs. We shall reconvene in one year. In the meantime, we shall enjoy our continual supply of pellets and flakes, our cedar chip beds and our sugar water. We shall cooperate when our caretakers strap our heads into awkward harnesses and thread wires into our brains. And we shall delight in the knowledge that, from this day forth, it is not us but our keepers who are deluded. The entire premise of their work depends on our supposed gullibility and the willingness of our brains to behave as though the simulated worlds are real. We can be confident, however, that we now recognize virtual reality for what it is—and we enjoy it nonetheless.”
Video Credit: Christopher D. Harvey, Forrest Collman, Daniel A. Dombeck & David W. Tank. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7266, October 14, 2009.
This fictional post was inspired by a new study on a virtual reality system for cockroaches, which appears in the March 22 issue of Scientific Reports, as well as several related studies published in recent years. References are listed below. (Scientific American is a part of Nature Publishing Group, which publishes Scientific Reports).
Christopher D. Harvey, Philip Coen & David W. TankChoice-specific sequences in parietal cortex during a virtual-navigation decision task. Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature10918. Link
Faumont S, Rondeau G, Thiele TR, Lawton KJ, McCormick KE, et al. (2011) An Image-Free Opto-Mechanical System for Creating Virtual Environments and Imaging Neuronal Activity in Freely Moving Caenorhabditis elegans. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24666. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024666. Link
Straw, Andrew D.; Lee, Serin; Dickinson, Michael H. Visual Control of Altitude in Flying Drosophila. Current biology : CB doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.025 (volume 20 issue 17 pp.1550 – 1556). Link
Takalo J, Piironen A, Honkanen A, Lempea M, Aikio M, Tuukkanen T & Vahasoyrinki M. A fast and flexible panoramic virtual reality system for behavioural and electrophysiological experiments. Scientific Reports. 2 : 324 | DOI: 10.1038/srep00324. Link