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News :: VERE - Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment

VERE - Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment

(11/12/2013) An innovative approach to physical and virtual embodiment is successfully creating new connections with avatars and robots that give people the illusion of being in, acting through and thinking as if these bodies were their own. In other words, a kind of ‘transfer of consciousness’ from people to an avatar or robot.

The FET-funded VERE project has made substantial progress in developing embodiment systems capable of dissolving the boundary between the human body and such surrogate representations in immersive virtual reality and physical reality. Its research work combines scientific experimentation on embodiment and multisensory integration in order to implement two parallel applications: one for immobile patients based on physical embodiment in robots and another for rehabilitation and training based on virtual embodiment. The innovative approach of the project also keeps an eye on the ethical dimension.

The key objective of the embodiment in a virtual avatar is to achieve such a perfect illusion of body ownership that, in the future, avatars look and behave just like their owners do. In this way, people would be able to act and think in their virtual body as if it were their own, and use it in a broad variety of situations. Yet, one of the most interesting features of the virtual embodiment is that it is opening the opportunity of exploring rehabilitation settings, where participants can experience conflict situations from a completely different perspective, literally experiencing the idea of “walking in another person's shoes”.

For its part, the embodiment in a robot avatar has been designed to allow immobile patients to act and interact in the physical world through a robot. For this purpose, the VERE team is developing robot "doubles" controlled through a brain-computer interface, which are able to provide an alternative physical representation of the person embodied in them. Therefore, they link person and robot in such a way that the person can see through the eyes of the robot and regain some real independence. For example, a patient confined to a wheelchair or bed, and who is unable to physically move, may nevertheless re-enter the world actively and physically through such remote embodiment.

In the left we see a person wearing a head-mounted display and an electrode cap for recording EEG brain signals. He is embodied in a remote robot, sees through the eyes, and hears through its ears, and controls the movements of the robot through the brain-computer interface.

All these embodiment procedures have ethical implications that are also being carefully examined by VERE's third pillar – ethics and philosophy of embodiment –, which seeks to ensure appropriate project guidelines, and to shed some light on how the sense of one’s own responsibility and emotions – like shame or guilt – are influenced by new virtual environments. How does knowledge about brain function contribute to our understanding of ethical distinctions? What is the minimal form of self-awareness? These are some of the questions that VERE is trying to answer.  

The VERE project, coordinated by "Universitat de Barcelona" (Spain), is funded under FET-Proactive "Human-Computer Confluence" initiative for a period of 60 months (from 01/06/2010 to 31/05/2015), with European Commission contribution of 8.500.000 €.