User pulls methane through a nanotube in a virtual reality environment

A researcher simulates pulling a methane molecule (white-and-grey complex) through a carbon nanotube (long white structure). Credit: Helen Deeks and Matt Sutton/Interactive Scientific Ltd.

Technology

Mastering molecules in virtual reality

Gaming gear makes short work of complex 3D modelling tasks.

An interactive simulation enables users to manipulate molecules and observe their dynamics in virtual reality.

The nanoscale dynamics of complex molecules involve a web of forces among many atoms. To find an intuitive way to study such interactions, a team led by David Glowacki at the University of Bristol, UK, developed a virtual environment to simulate 3D molecular structures.

Users wearing off-the-shelf virtual-reality (VR) headsets wield handheld motion controllers to ‘grab’ and manipulate the molecules — threading methane through a carbon nanotube, for example, or tying a knot in a protein. Models running in the cloud do the physics calculations.

Users completed these tasks more efficiently with the VR system than with a computer and mouse or a tablet.

The program could help researchers to visualize and design molecules and test hypotheses about the molecules’ mechanics, the authors write.