Developed Reality

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What is it like to be an ant?


Many dreamers and philosophers have wondered what it is like to be another creature. Thomas Nagel popularized this idea with his famous thought experiment “What is it like to be a bat?”

It seems unlikely that we can ever truly understand what it is like to be another mammal–let alone an insect. However, virtual reality technologies are beginning to make it possible to build these thought experiments into actual experiences. This is the goal of my Hidden Kingdoms series: to approximate, to the extent that it’s conceptually and technologically possible, what it is like to be one of these creatures through immersive simulations.

In a forthcoming volume of this series, tentatively titled Hidden Kingdoms, Vol. 3: Carpenter Ant , you will take on the role of an ant struggling to provide food for its nest…and stay alive.

This interactive documentary is being built, initially, at least, for the Oculus Touch system. The goal is to create an immersive, true-to-life environment that you can explore in the first person as a small worker ant.

Traditionally, in first person VR experiences the position of your hands in the real world controls the position of your hands in the virtual world using the VR tracking system. This, along with head tracking, helps create a more compelling, immersive experience. This makes sense for humanoid characters, but what about ants?

Ants don’t really have hands, and they interact with their environments in large part through their antennae, which serve as sophisticated sense organs that allow them to detect pheromones and other chemical signatures. For example, a worker ant might use her antennae to detect a trail a sister ant made by rubbing her abdomen on the ground that leads to a source of food.

(Fun fact: the workers are almost always females and typically sisters…males play a very small role in most ant colonies.)

For these reasons, the ant avatar has been rigged so that your touch controllers control the ant’s antennae through positional tracking–meaning that the position of your hands in the real world will control the position and orientation of your antennae in the virtual world. You then use these antennae to detect pheromone trails and food–and to tell friend from foe.

While still in development, you can find the playable proof of concept here:

The little House Sparrow becomes a formidable predator.