The virtual body illusion and immersive Second Life avatars

SECOND LIFE is an online “virtual world” which enables users to create a customised avatar, or digital persona, with which they can interact with each other. It has become incredibly popular since its launch just over 6 years ago, with millions of “residents” now using it regularly to meet others, socialize and even to have virtual sex. Second Life is now filled with virtual communities and institutions – it has businesses and universities, and its own virtual economy.

Now, imagine a futuristic version of Second Life, in which avatars can transfer sensations to the bodies of their users. Such a scenario may seem far-fetched, but a team of European researchers has just taken us one step closer it. They demonstrate a perceptual illusion in which a computer-generated virtual body can be made to feel like one’s real body, so that one can feel sensations from it and respond to it as if it were real.

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Flight of the remote-controlled cyborg beetle

Remote-controlled insects may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they have already been under development for some time now. In 2006, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development branch) launched the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems program, whose ultimate aim is to turn insects into unmanned aerial vehicles.

Such projects provide proof of principle, but have met with limited success. Until now, that is. In the open access journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, a team of electrical engineers led by Hirotaka Sato of the University of California, Berkeley, report the development of an implantable radio-controlled neural stimulating device, with which they demonstrate, for the very first time, the accurate control of flight in freely flying insects.

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