Scientists create video game to unlock how flies navigate

A tethered apple fly responds to airflows and odors in a virtual reality arena created by scientists based in Bangalore, India.

(CNN)Scientists have created a virtual reality video game to better understand how flying insects navigate the world.

More than 80% of all (multicellular) species on the planet are insects, but it's not fully known how an insect is able to identify objects — be it flowers to pollinate, crops to feed on or arms to bite.
"Nothing humans have created to date has the computational prowess to navigate the world like a tiny little fly. Pretty humbling, isn't it?" said Shannon Olsson, an associate professor of naturalist-inspired chemical ecology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, and an author of a new study that published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
    "Understanding how an insect navigates in the world with only a few hundred thousand neurons in their brain (unlike our human 80 billion) can help us to create better technology that uses less computational power," she said.
    Olsson had long wondered how insects are so good at finding things several miles away, but given how tiny they are and how fast they duck and weave — something anyone who has tried to swat a fly can attest to — exploring this in their natural environment has proved difficult, she said.
    "Because of their small size and speed, it is difficult to follow insects around in nature, and even more difficult to evaluate what an insect is seeing, smelling or feeling at any one point in time when it is flying around in the real world," she said
    An apple fly tethered with a tiny needle as it tries to distinguish the size and distance of virtual objects.
    "Our VR (virtual reality), which moves the world around the insect instead, allows us to measure what 3D sights, smells and air currents cause them to change direction.

    Ready insect one

    Olsson's team built what they described as a "video game that is controlled by the fly using its wings as a joystick" and used a tiny needle to keep the fly tethered within the arena they created.