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Virtual Reality for flies and mice

Creating virtual reality for a mouse is much more complex than shrinking a head mounted display as this (fake) photo would suggest. Image credit: Kirill Kurashov | Shutterstock.com | Image Edited by Edgy Labs

Brains are amazing, and I mean all brains, not just the human one. As little as 5000 neurones are sufficient to a fruitfly to control its flight, a feat that requires millions of software code lines and a huge amount of power in a commercial aircraft.

Scientists, researchers and engineers are extremely interested in understanding how an apparently simple set of neurones can be so efficient. They would like to “see” how these neurones actually work when the fly is … flying. Clearly this is beyond current technology possibilities.

Here comes FreemoVR, a software and an environment developed at the University of Friburg at the Straw Lab.

A team of researchers has developed a way to create a virtual reality perception to animals that are standing still, thus soliciting their brain to react as if they were actually moving although being still they can be examined. Alternatively, the fly is presented with a simulated virtual reality environment and its movements are studied in the different conditions.

Effect of head movement on Drosophila flight. (a–c) Top views of trajectories in which a freely flying fly was visually stimulated with VR-based panoramic image motion to keep it on an infinity symbol ‘’ path. In a, no glue was applied (N = 36 flies), whereas in b the head was immobilized (N = 78). In c, glue was applied similarly to in b, but the droplets on head and thorax were not fused, and the head could thus move independently of the thorax (N = 39). Credit: John R. Stowers and Al in a Nature article.

On the one hand the artificial reality makes the fruitfly “believe” it is actually flying and by presenting different kind of obstacles its brain processes the information and activates the appropriate actions for avoidance, or presenting a flower the fruitfly brain will direct the wings to fly towards the flower…

At the Straw Lab scientists are experimenting on flies, mice and fish (zebra fish) using Virtual Reality hoping to learn more on how neurones perform their magic. Since neurones are neurones (theoretically you can swap a neurone from a fruitfly with one of yours and you won’t be able to tell the difference…) what is being learnt from these studies can open up a door to understand our own brain.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.