People Love Having an Additional Pair of Arms–in VR

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What would you do if you had an extra pair? This might seem like too much good things, or unwieldy. A new study has shown that humans can adapt to the use of additional robotic arms like their own body parts.

Scientists have studied the brain function of humans for decades. Use tools. The theory is that your brain sees a wrench as a substitute hand for your own. When you wield a long stick, your sense of personal space extends to accommodate the object’s full length so that you don’t accidentally whack someone with it when you turn around. How does this affect your perception of yourself?

This question could have an impact on the design of robotic devices and virtual reality environments. Many roboticists are interested in building systems that would give humans the ability to use additional limbs and potentially enable people to complete tasks that require an extra arm or leg—or even a tail. Virtual reality provides an opportunity for people to try experiences that aren’t yet possible in the real world and to act as avatars that might look nothing like their controllers (or even like humans at all). To be useful and usable, however, any additional real or virtual body parts need to blend in as if they’ve always been there. This is crucial for both immersive video games and real-life cyborg parts.

A number of experiments have been done to see how people respond to the environment. Having an additional appendage. Researchers provided participants with an extra arm or hand, and a rubber finger for touch. These experiments showed that humans can feel like these extra, or “supernumerary,” limbs are a part of their body. Much research has yet been done on whether or not people can control the limbs that they have.

This was the aim of new research that was published last month in Scientific Reports. Researchers immersed participants in a VR environment that included an avatar of themselves—with an Two additional virtual robotic armsJust below their real ones. Study co-author Ken Arai (a cognitive scientist and roboticist at the University of Tokyo) said that VR was essential in understanding how humans might adapt to robotic body parts. It is difficult to get robotic arms to move in a realistic environment. This is similar to what our brain expects from real-life body parts. VR has a shorter time lag between the input of sensors and the visible movement virtual arms, making the experience more real.

Participants controlled the simulated robotic arms by using sensors attached at their feet and waists. To move in VR space, the extra arm would be activated if the lower leg was moved in the real world. Bending your toes would allow the virtual hand make a grab motion. Virtually manipulating arms with VR enabled people to feel how the limbs interacted. Participants felt vibrations against the soles of their feet when the virtual robotic hand touched the object in VR.

Once hooked into the VR setup, participants dove into a coordination task, using the extra arms to “touch” balls that appeared in random locations. After each attempt, participants rated how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt as if the virtual robot limbs/arms were my limbs/arms” and “I felt as if the movements of the virtual robot arm were influencing my own movements.” When they had completed the ball-touch task multiple times, people’s responses became faster—and they also reported feeling more ownership of and agency over their new arms.

Another experiment measured how fast people could move their robotic arms to respond to virtual touches. Participants felt vibrations on the feet as virtual objects touched their artificial limbs. They were then instructed to move their robotic arms further away from these objects. Sometimes the location of the physical vibration on the foot matched the location where the virtual ball touched the limb—for example, a vibration on the top of the left foot would indicate contact on the back of the virtual left hand—as they did in the ball-touch experiment. But sometimes the sensation didn’t match where the object appeared to be in VR. When the visible location of the VR object and the place it felt like the robotic limb was being touched lined up, participants jerked their robotic arms away slightly more quickly than they did when the sensation did not correspond to the object’s position. This pattern was also seen when the same experiment was carried out on people’s real-world limbs. The researchers interpret this as a sign that participants’ subconscious sense of personal space expanded to include the area visible around their robotic arms in VR.

Overall, the results suggest participants felt like they had acquired whole new body parts—not just like they had extended their existing feet by adding a new tool. This could open up new worlds of real and virtual possibilities.

“In virtual reality, we can have avatars of any shape or dimension,” says Andrea Stevenson Won, a human-computer interaction researcher who runs the Virtual Embodiment Lab at Cornell University and was not involved in the study. “You could give yourself wings and fly around in a virtual space and get this euphoric experience.” Learning more about how people will feel about their avatars’ additional body parts will help researchers design that experience. “How people might interpret avatar bodies, which don’t exist physically, and react to them as though they were real in some sense is an interesting question,” Won adds.

Arai is more excited about the potential for humans to be able do more in the physical world. Existing robotics systems might be able to lend a hand. “Maybe this knowledge [from the VR system]can be easily adapted to the actual robotic systems. This kind of feedback loop will be very important to improve supernumerary robotic limb designs,” he says. “We want to enable impossible things for humans. It should be possible to add more limbs. Everything should be possible.”

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