“Avatar" Virtual Reality: Scientists Explore Self-Consciousness

February 23rd, 2011 in News 4 comments

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In the 2009 film Avatar, scientists exploring the planet Pandora used alien hybrid bodies called “avatars” that functioned through a mental connection established with their genetically-matched human counterparts.

While this kind of technology seems as science fictionally fantastic as only the movies can portray it, recent work in the neuro-scientific community may lead the world to think otherwise.  Neu­rol­o­gist Olaf Blanke, with the Brain Mind In­stitute at Ecole Poly­technique Fédérale de Lau­sanne in Switzer­land, led a Virtual-Reality (VR) experiment utilizing computerized “virtual humans” to gain a deeper understanding of the neurobiological basis for the knowledge of one’s location in space.  Interestingly, his team seems to have discovered that the sensation of possessing a body arises as part of our own conscious experience.therealavata

Blanke and his team had vol­unteers wear VR stereoscopic visors, or view projections on a large screen, while the researchers challenged them about fundamental aspects of self perception.  The scientists physically touched the subjects ei­ther in sync or out of sync with their dig­ital human “avatars” as they wandered through 3D environments, and even ‘immersed’ them into an avatar of the opposite sex.  They also changed the subject’s perspective from the first to the third-person point of view.  While such methods may seem a bit odd and even unorthodox, the response of the subjects to such testing was both highly positive and truly fascinating.  Indeed, as Blanke commented regarding his own observations: “They start think­ing that the avatar is their own body;  we cre­ated a partial out-of-body experience.  We were able to disas­sociate touch and vi­sion and make people think that their body was two me­tres in front of them”.

Throughout the experiement, subjects were fitted with  electrode-containing skullcaps to record the electrical activity produced by their brains.  The data collected by the electrodes and brain imaging scans (via fMRI) during the study demonstrated a height­ened response in the temporo-pa­ri­etal and frontal regions of the vol­unteer’s brains, areas classically considered responsible for integrating touch and vision.  These findings suggest that the subjects’ brains were successfully being tricked as they experienced their own “bodies” in virtual space.

Progression in the knowledge of self-awareness and virtual reality could lead to major advances in the fields of robotics, neuro-rehabilitation and even severe-pain treatment.  Imagine being able to temporarily “leave” the body as it heals after a serious injury!  Though we may never get to explore Pandora, the implications of such out of body “avatar” experiences could be enormous.

Scientists project humans into avatars – Financial Times

Scientists explore the meaning of self-consciousness – Irish Times

The real avatar – EurekAlert

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