Shortly after the first iPhone was launched Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the former CEO of Nokia, commented on Apple's new product. The iPhone was brushed off as a niche product, with comments like “this is not a mobile phone”. Kallasvuo was right, it is more than that. Nokia’s mobile phone business has since collapsed. Many others have also failed to recognize the impact of new technology, and have failed to remain innovative and stay on the market. For example, Blockbuster was outperformed by Netflix who made on-demand streaming tv and video available to viewers. Kodak is another giant to falter in the face of advancing technology. Everyone knows that the new king of digital photography is Instagram.
The digital technology is currently changing our world in unprecedented ways. I have previously argued that the time has come for cloud computing. Another exciting example is the recent advances in interaction design creating new and very cool ways to use computer programs. For example, the ability to create highly visual 3D environments that simulates physical presence in the real world – a virtual reality.
Virtual reality was hype in the late eighties, but it never took off. Now, virtual reality is back with a vengeance; affordable with significantly improved performance. Thus, the long-promised technology is becoming mainstream. Virtual reality has begun to play a role in gaming and films. For example, Mythbusters is already shooting in virtual reality. As a moment of affirmation the Time magazine put virtual reality and the Oculus founder Lucky Palmer on the cover of its August issue.
Moreover, Zuckerberg and Facebook acquired the virtual reality startup Oculus with the words “So if you go back ten years, most of how people communicated were through text. We’re going through a period where now it’s mostly visual and photos. We’re entering into a period where that’s increasingly going to be video [...] I think immersive 3D content is the obvious next thing after video.”
We wanted to give virtual reality a try and developed a tool for molecular modeling (Molecular Rift) as part of a collaboration with the Department of Interaction Design (LTH). The ability to interact with molecular models is relevant to drug discovery since computer-generated molecular models are frequently used to obtain deeper understandings in many areas (e.g. ligand-protein complexes). In fact, visualizing and interacting with molecular models are a significant part of a drug designer’s day job nowadays. The virtual reality environment was created by a talented student using Oculus Rift (a head-mounted display) coupled with the MS Kinect gaming sensor to handle gesture recognition, eliminating the need for standard input devices (keyboard and mouse), providing the drug designer with a more natural way to navigate in 3D.
Student Magnus Norrby, a 10x programmer, demoing ‘his’ Molecular Rift at an internal science symposium
The BIG (and somewhat boring) question – is this very cool virtual reality environment more useful than using traditional molecular visualizers? Well, it should be noted that a virtual reality experience is different from using conventional 3D computer graphics. In the virtual reality, objects have a location in 3D-space relative to the user’s position. Thus the main difference is that you are working with things as opposed to working with images of things. The brain interprets it as you interact with the objects, and you feel like you are really there. The presence changes everything. Traditional visualizers ‘just’ show molecules in front of you, with Oculus a drug designer can enter a protein-ligand complex and look around.
Is that more useful? No one method will ever single-handedly make all the difference in drug discovery (not even CRISPR). Each method, however valuable it is, is one part of the puzzle. That said, if you believe that understanding the 3D component is important, then we believe virtual reality the best way to do it. What we learned during development was that once people try it, they get it. “This is so cool” – was an often heard comment. To compare with sophisticated CAVEs (which are also very cool!), Molecular Rift is easily accessible and the cost for setting up the environment (i.e. Oculus Rift and MS Kinect) is reasonable (a couple of hundred USD). It can easily be used at home or in office spaces. Molecular Rift and its source code have been made open source and is available at GitHub free of charge. We integrated an open-source cheminformatics toolkit paving the way for future development – hopefully in a collaborative and concerted fashion.
Whether Molecular Rift will be the new iPhone of molecular visualizers or be reduced to some kind of exhibition, something to show-off for “important” visitors remains to be seen. If you are interested in the details, the manuscript is here. It includes initial attempts on voice control, and one section with reflections on virtual reality's capabilities in Chemistry and future possibilities. For example, Chemistry as a University subject is certainly not trending. In many countries gloomy pictures are reported. Gamifying learning using Molecular Rift might be one way to motivate and inspire students.
Molecular Rift Is Not a Molecular Visualizer.