Chemistry is a subject that requires hands-on learning, not just books. In order to learn how molecules work, for years chemistry students have been manipulating physical models of those molecules, scaled up hundreds of times. According to a group of UK researchers, however, those molecule models are insufficient to get students to really understand their subject material. The models are incapable of showing how molecules work dynamically; they cannot show the molecules’ movement or flexibility, so the students have to imagine how they might look in motion. In more recent years, teaching methods have evolved somewhat, with computer applications allowing students to watch and manipulate molecules onscreen, but the researchers argue that even those methods are insufficient, lacking a true hands-on approach.
Therefore, the researchers created a virtual reality system that is able to show how complex molecules exist in 3D space. Users can even physically manipulate the molecules to better learn about their properties. The research is published in a paper entitled “Sampling molecular conformations and dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality framework,” which you can access here.
The new system allows users to achieve co-location, a phenomenon in which interactions in a real 3D physical space align with interactions in a simulated 3D environment. The system is cloud-based, meaning that the data being used in the simulations can be constantly updated and improved, even as the system is in use.
Six people can use the system at the same time, whether they’re in the same room or in different parts of the world. Wireless controllers behave like tweezers, allowing users to grab molecules and their parts. To test the system, the researchers asked 32 volunteers to carry out three different tasks: manipulating a methane molecule through a carbon nanotube, manipulating an organic helicene molecule to change its orientation, and to tie a knot in a polypeptide. None of the volunteers had ever used a virtual reality system before, but they were all able to use this one to varying degrees. They also preferred the system to others, such as touchscreens. Other testing showed that the system was capable of letting two people toss a molecular buckyball back and forth across a real room.
“We describe a framework for interactive molecular dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality (VR) environment, combining rigorous cloud-mounted atomistic physics simulations with commodity VR hardware…It allows users to visualize and sample, with atomic-level precision, the structures and dynamics of complex molecular structures ‘on the fly’ and to interact with other users in the same virtual environment,” the researchers state. “…This framework should accelerate progress in nanoscale molecular engineering areas including conformational mapping, drug development, synthetic biology, and catalyst design. More broadly, our findings highlight the potential of VR in scientific domains where three-dimensional dynamics matter, spanning research and education.”
Authors of the paper include Michael O’Connor, Helen M. Deeks, Edward Dawn, Oussama Metatla, Anne Roudaut, Matthew Sutton, Lisa May Thomas, Becca Rose Glowacki, Rebecca Sage, Philip Tew, Mark Wonnacott, Phil Bates, Adrian J Mulholland, and David R. Glowacki.
The virtual reality hardware can be accessed here.
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