Virtual reality creates a life-size, 3-D environment without the boundaries of screens. It is an immersive sensory experience that includes touch, vision and sound. Users’ brains fail to distinguish between the virtual and the real, especially as headsets and graphics have improved. This is why a user feels as if he or she is actually standing on the edge of a volcano or engaged in combat in Iraq.
While most people associate virtual reality with video games, this powerful technology has groundbreaking applications for science and medicine. Imagine giving researchers a large-scale, real-life immersive experience, not for gaming, but for exploring complex biochemical structures.
Virtual reality is already changing the way scientists explore proteins. Proteins are complex, dynamic macromolecules that twist, buckle and fold in on themselves. New virtual reality technology is making it possible for scientists to “occupy the same space as a protein, and walk through and around it,” which gives them more insight into its structure and function. Because proteins themselves are complex 3-D structures, this intimate experience provides much more information than 2-D models.
At Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, researchers are using an Oculus Rift™ program to pinpoint where and how a patient’s DNA has mutated to cause cancer. (Rift is a state-of-the-art virtual reality headset.) While wearing these headsets, clinicians can manipulate giant 3-D models of microscopic proteins, change the view with their hands and see only the mutation in question. With a better understanding of these mutations, they hope to more easily find better treatments for patients.
Imagine the possibilities of virtual reality for drug development. The ability to interact with proteins – visually, aurally and tactilely – could be a game changer for rare diseases, which are often caused by a missing or malfunctioning protein.
With new technology, such as a recently developed virtual reality plug-in for a molecular visualization system, researchers can touch, feel and see the protein from all angles. Being “inside” a protein can help researchers get a fuller picture of what is causing the changes in a specific protein and lead to more precise ways to fix the problem, including performing “molecular surgery.”
Virtual reality not only merges spatial awareness with data analysis, it changes the role of scientists from detached observers to immersed participants. Because virtual reality feels so real, it has the potential to marry science and creativity in completely new ways and provide a giant leap forward in the drug discovery process.