In the movie "Avatar," humans have developed technology that allows them to remotely control a genetically engineered alien body. Now new developments in augmented reality are bringing us eerily close to realizing that technology in the real world.

Japanese researchers with Different Dimension Inc., a start-up company working on augmented reality, have invented a robot that can take on the appearance of any virtual or real character, which can potentially be controlled and animated remotely, reports Gizmag. Anyone present with the robot can then touch and physically interact with the virtual character as if they were really there.

Technically these developments go beyond augmented reality — which is the projection of virtual information onto the real world — and ventures into a new realm called "mixed reality," which gives virtual objects a physical reality.

The robot avatar, or "virtual humanoid," is covered in a green-screen material which projects a computer-generated image to anyone wearing the proper head-mounted display. It also moves and interacts with a user in sync with the character that it is made to project. In other words, the technology brings to life virtual characters by essentially giving them a body in the real world. Supposedly the green material covering the robot is also natural and skin-like to the touch — or at least more life-like than previous models.

The current prototype, affectionately called U-Tsu-Shi-O-Mi, can move its head, torso and arms, which means it can reach out and touch, and be touched back by the person wearing the headset. This kind of intimacy with a virtual character is unheard of, and it's easy to see how it could have vast application in the world of video gaming, education and training. (Of course, some "naughtier" applications might also be inevitable.)

It's also not difficult to imagine this concept being extended for people sitting in front of 3-D cameras, who would then have their own image projected on the robot. By matching up a person's movements with those of the robot, the technology could then be used to allow people to remotely control the robot as their very own avatar. Who knows, this could be the next-generation of the video phone — a real-world, embodied projection that is tactile as well as visual and auditory.

Of course, the robots probably won't be as affordable as your smartphone for quite some time (they are expected to sell for about $4,800 - $5,300 during pre-orders available later this year). Still, it's exciting to imagine what this kind of technology could mean for future communication and remote interaction.

You can see the technology in action in the following video:

Related on MNN: 10 robots and machines from the history books

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Augmented reality robot brings us one step closer to 'Avatar' technology
A new robot, called a "virtual humanoid," takes augmented reality to the next level, and is reminiscent of the technology from the movie 'Avatar.'