Miniature VR goggles – tiny tech to terrify mice

Researchers have developed a tiny virtual reality headset for mice.

It sounds cute. But mice are unlikely to enjoy the new immersive experience, given researchers suggest their VR goggles can be used to simulate overhead threats, like looming birds of prey.

Researchers from Northwestern University in the US developed the miniature kit as an alternative to current systems that surround mice with computer or projection screens.

The equipment is often used by researchers to measure brain activity in animals as they navigate virtual environments. An example is recent research showing rats can imagine future scenarios, like humans. 

According to the paper published in Neuron, the miniature mouse tech marks the first time a VR system has been used to simulate an overhead threat – overcoming a draw back for researchers, but perhaps not for mice.

The system, called the Miniature Rodent Stereo Illumination VR, includes compact goggles with custom-designed lenses and tiny LED displays. 

The system is not wearable. Rather it is attached to an experimental set up (like a treadmill), which sits directly in front of the mouse’s face, covering its field of view.

“We designed and built a custom holder for the goggles,” says study author John Issa. “The whole optical display — the screens and the lenses — go all the way around the mouse.”

After training the mice to use the equipment, the researchers used the goggles to simulate an overhead threat – projecting a dark, expanding disk into the top of the goggles, and the top of the mice’s fields of view. 

In these experiments, mice reacted to the virtual threat by running faster or freezing.

According to the paper, the relatively inexpensive and easy to set up technology makes neurobiology research more accessible. Which sounds like rather bad news if you’re a mouse.

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