- Virtual reality exhibit at SC16 wows visitors
- Nano Simbox provides a virtual molecular level playground for scientists and students
- Visceral experience of the nanoscale provides the realism needed to motivate public policies
Molecules are the building blocks of life. But because they are unseen by the human eye, they are really difficult to imagine.
That’s what makes the Nano Simbox so promising. By simulating molecular interactions in an immersive virtual reality (VR) environment, the Nano Simbox can make the invisible world visible.
“With the Nano Simbox, I can literally reach into a real time molecular simulation and carry out manipulations that are scientifically interesting and then learn how molecular systems respond,” says David Glowacki. “It offers a sort of real time molecular sandbox, where I can play around with state-of-the-art computational models or just build things for the fun of it.”
Glowacki, originally from Milwaukee, is a a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Bristol in the UK. In collaboration with Interactive Scientific, a company that spun off from his research, he created the Nano Simbox.
Developing interactive molecular structures has long been a goal of scientific researchers, but recent developments in computing technology have only now made this possible.
“Accurate predictive models of how atoms and molecules work will save loads of time and money in the lab,” Glowacki says. “The process of designing molecular structures has similarities with designing a building. These days, you probably wouldn't go and test a hundred different building designs --that would be inefficient and costly. You'd actually do it with a computerized drafting program first.”
Glowacki says there is a need for interactive 3D molecular simulations because 2D representations can someties obscure details of the dynamic nature of molecules. This realistic experience is particularly valuable for the novice.
“From an educational perspective, VR is interesting for molecular science because the molecular world is not accessible to our sensory apparatus,” Glowacki says. “The VR world that the Nano Simbox puts you in shows you this beautiful choreography of the invisible molecular world that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see.”
That marks a real step forward because many think of the nanoscale as a stationary, static domain. “That's not true,” says Glowacki. “It's a living, breathing, and dynamic world just like our own.”
Doors of perception
By visualizing topics that are unseen, the Nano Simbox also has implications for the general public: It has the potential to impact how public policy responds to scientific problems. He points to the limited progress made against climate change, or the slow reaction to the antimicrobial resistance crisis acknowledged by the World Health Organization.
Glowacki believes that one reason we fail to address these and similar troubles is because they remain too abstract to register. “The idea that climate is shaped by some invisible molecular force is difficult for many to grasp,” he observes.
Here lies the true potential of the Nano Simbox project. By opening a window into the invisible, it can provide the visceral experience needed to affect public opinion.
“The Nano Simbox has the ability to provide people with an intuition for the reality of that microscopic world which, like it or not, is shaping our macroscopic lived experience in a variety of ways. And so the more that we can educate people into the mechanics of that world and provide them with insight into the fact that the reality of that world is as real as anything else, then I think we've accomplished something pretty important.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Nano Simbox, for use either in the classroom or for research, contact Interactive Scientific.