Thursday, November 8, 2012

Telepresence to go microscopic?

A couple of weeks ago (on Halloween, in fact), I posted a news story to Laser Focus World about "telepresence" robots crafted especially to allow people to attend corporate meetings; the remote attendees wear head-mounted displays and other devices, while at the other end their physical robot avatars sit at the meeting, displaying facial expressions and waving their hands impatiently.

However, this is only the beginning. A group of European and American scientists recently created a somewhat similar telepresence system, except that the meeting consisted of one human and one rat.1 The human, who wore an eye-tracking head-mounted display, was represented by a rodent-sized robot that allowed the person to communicate with the rat on its own scale; the rat, tracked by two stereoscopic cameras, was represented to the human as a humanoid avatar on a computer screen. The human got to play carefully scripted games with the rat; the rat got to play along and occasionally receive a dab of jam for a reward.

So what's next? Well, back in the 1960s, a science-fiction movie, Fantastic Voyage, was based on the implausible idea of shrinking a submarine and a few people to microscopic size and injecting the sub into someone's body so that the crew could find and eliminate a blood clot. It made little sense then, but telepresence could make this sort of thing a reality (minus the teeny humans).

For example, the "Pillcam," invented by Given Imaging (Yoqneam, Israel) more than ten years ago and now moving toward FDA approval, is swallowed by a patient and moves naturally through the patient's gastrointestinal tract looking for polyps, conceivably eliminating the need for a colonoscopy. Such devices could be made smaller -- perhaps much smaller -- and could possibly be steered or even self-propelled, delivering drugs or doing microsurgery. As for photonics hardware, an extreme version of a camera-on-a-chip would be needed for vision, and other (perhaps plasmonic) sensors would be a must. Or the devices could be tracked using optical coherence tomography (OCT). Or . . .

Rats, I have to get back to work.


1. Jean-Marie Normand et al., PLOS ONE (2012) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048331.

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