A virtual reality system that allows an animal to explore a virtual forest could lead to new possibilities for the behavioural and neurophysiological study of animals. The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Virtual reality (VR) systems have previously been used - in rodents, for example - to mimic an animal’s natural environment in the laboratory and thereby improve the study of the animal’s neuronal mechanisms. Creating a VR system that can be used for experiments with animals that have fast vision, such as day-active insects, has remained elusive.
Mikko Vahasoyrinki and colleagues developed a VR system in which a data projector with an add-on fish-eye lens is used to produce spherical projections of computer-generated images. This enables panoramic visual stimulation with high image quality and at a frame rate of 360 Hz, making it more suitable for animals with fast vision than previous mirror-based designs. The set-up includes a track-ball system for behavioural experiments on walking animals, such as cockroaches, which were used as an animal model in this study. The cockroaches remained active in the VR for extended periods, alternating between bursts of walking activity and periods of inactivity. The system is not yet able to generate a full-colour VR environment - this was compromised to increase the frame rate.
Future research will focus on implementing multisensory stimulation in the VR - for example, an olfactometer is being developed, which will enable the stimulation of the olfactory and mechanosensory pathways.