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Amputees Could Get a Helping Hand in the Virtual World

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Real ownership of a virtual limb

Hans Neleman / Getty

What is the best way to for someone to get used to their artificial limb? Put them in a virtual environment.

So says Anthony Steed, a computer scientist at University College London, who has been studying how the rubber hand illusion works in virtual worlds.

In the standard illusion, a false hand is placed on a table in front of a volunteer whose real hand is out of view, and both are stroked at the same time. After a while people feel a sensation in the rubber hand, even when it is the only one being touched.

Steed has now discovered that people relate to virtual appendages so strongly that much of the set-up work normally needed to pull off the illusion is unnecessary in virtual environments. For example, people automatically experience ownership of their virtual limbs, without needing simultaneous stroking in the real world, claims Steed.

Twenty volunteers were asked to play simple games in a virtual environment that gave a real-world perspective in which the avatar's hands were represented as if they were the volunteer's own. The volunteers were hooked up to a monitoring system which recorded the movements of muscles and nerve-endings firing. At a random point in the game, a lamp on the virtual table toppled onto the volunteer, and their reactions were monitored. Most made gestures with their arm suggesting they were trying to move it out of the way--despite there being no real risk. In a follow-up questionnaire, volunteers acknowledged they had behaved as if the virtual hand were their own, Steed reports.

From New Scientist
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