It's strange, but true — this is a praying mantis wearing 3-D glasses

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: When I say 3D, what comes to mind? The movies, right? But did you know that praying mantises can see in 3D? I kid you not, and now scientists at Newcastle University in Britain, including Dr. Vivek Nityananda, have created a set of bug eye glasses to study how praying mantises see.

Dr. Vivek Nityananda: They're very similar to us. Actually, we can see in 3D as well and we know this of some vertebrates as well. They're the only invertebrates which we know that also see in 3D. The glasses allow us to actually manipulate how we can present 3D stimuli to the mantis, just like a movie manipulates us into believing that we're seeing 3D when it's not actually 3D.

Werman: So you have some way of interfacing with those glasses and getting information out of the glasses that the praying mantis also is seeing?

Nityananda: Exactly. What we do is we have a 3D monitor and with the combination of the monitor and the glasses we can actually create an effective 3D.

Werman: What kind of stimuli are you using and what kind of reactions are you getting from the mantises?

Nityananda: We're using something that's essentially a stand-in for a fly or any kind of prey, but all you need to actually elicit that kind of response into fooling the mantis into believing it's seeing something that's a likely prey object is just a black dot on a white screen or a black square that moves around in a particular way.

Werman: So it's almost like a movie as opposed to an actual object?

Nityananda: Yes, it's something that has to move because one thing about mantises is that they're very sensitive mainly to motion and they only strike at something that's actually moving.

Werman: What kind of information are you gathering? What are you learning from all of this?

Nityananda: The idea is to look at how 3D vision in insects compares to 3D vision in vertebrates. There are several things we can gain out of this. One possibility is they actually have very different mechanisms of seeing in 3D compared to us and potentially, giving they're relatively simpler nervous systems, those mechanisms are going to be much easier to figure out and to implement into technology of either computers or robotics. On the other hand, if they do have something that's very similar to us, that tells us that basically nervous systems are coming up with the same solutions across different species.

Werman: The praying mantis looks already kind of like an E.T. and then you put these glasses on top - I saw the picture, it looks like they've got a flat screen TV in front of each eye. What are these glasses made of?

Nityananda: We actually just cut them out of actually 3D glasses which one might wear in cinema. The 3D monitor is what you might be presented with in a theater and basically uses the same technology.

Werman: Once you understand the mechanisms of how all this works, what might be practical applications?

Nityananda: The practical applications and what we're hoping for is that since there are three people on the project, one looking at behavior, but the also there are people on the project who are going to actually find the neural mechanisms behind this by recording from neurons, then the third person is going to actually model the neural mechanisms and get a computational algorithm and that computation algorithm we're hoping we can implement into either computer vision so that we can either judge depth somehow or robotics, which of course these robots could use these algorithms to actually judge depth.

Werman: Getting kind of close to them? Are they almost like family now or not yet?

Nityananda: We recognize some of them and we know which ones are motivated enough to be useful and which ones aren't, but I guess you can't get too close to them or it might influence your results.

Werman: Dr. Vivek Nityananda at Newcastle University in the UK, thanks so much for your time and telling us about this.

Nityananda: Thank you.

Werman: All these praying mantises need now is a box of popcorn and a ticket stub. You can see the insects wearing their 3D glasses. We've posted videos and pictures at PRI.org.

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