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Rendezvous with a ratbot.

WE OBSERVE ANIMALS IN THEIR HABITAT ALL THE TIME. Rick on the Latest David Attenborough show and you're likely to see some hairy beast at a waterhole caught on film by some hairy human hiding behind a bush. Adventurous spirits for whom watching the TV is not quite immersive enough can traipse about a world interacting with charismatic megafauna in their own environment. Swim with dolphins, wrestle alligators, waddle with penguins--it can all be done for a price.

But the smaller, less charismatic animals have long been left in the cold. Ants do not have human visitors climb into the anthill. Wormholes have no human guests. No one has yet to dig into the dirt with a vole--at the mole's scale. But this will, change thanks to researchers at MIT and London's UCL. They have given us the ability to beam ourselves into the home of a rat.


"Beam" is their term for it. "We borrowed it from Star Trek, of course," says Mandayam A. Srinivasan, a senior research scientist at MIT's department of mechanical, engineering. In essence a robotic rat is placed into a box with a rat. Meanwhile and elsewhere, a human dons a virtual reality rig. Into this guinea pig's field of vision appears a reconstruction of the rat's environment. And in it is the visage of another person. This person is the avatar of the rat. As the real rat moves in his box, the avatar moves in the VR world.

As the real human moves, wherever he may be, the robot rat--the human's avatar to the real rat--moves in the rat cage. Thus each being is beamed into the other's world, and they are able to interact.

Srinivasan's robot is anything but realistic. Basically, it's a puck on wheels. But whatever it's dissimilitude to a rat, it did carry a plastic tray holding Jell-O--so the rat was able to overcome its fear of otherness and approach the ratbot. A successful tete-a-tete ensued.

As of now, the rodent and human were able only to dance about each other. With a little more technology, and a little more funding, Srinivasan hopes to wire the human's VR outfit so that when the rat prods the bot, the human feels it, increasing the realism of the interaction.

To increase realism on the rat's end, a more ratty robot could be designed. Or, conceivably, a real remote-control rat with electrodes in its brain could be manipulated in the box. "That way you may get more natural interactions with rats," says Srinivasan. "This will, of course, be shocking to people. We are just showing the possibilities of this technology. What is to be done is left to people that want to do it. We are not advocating anything."

Humans in this setup wouldn't have to know they were manipulating a real rat, of course. In fact, the real human needn't know that he's interacting with a rat at all--which may be preferable to some. "We did detect some changes when the humans knew that the avatar represented a rat versus when they thought it was a human," says Srinivasan.

There's no reason the technology can't be taken to other species. Flying robots could take us on journeys with real dragonflies--or gnats. Multi-footed slinkbots could allow us to daily with centipedes. Those earthworms may soon see us nosing into their wormholes.

And if all goes well, they'll nose back.


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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ; robot rat
Author:Abrams, Michael
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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