University of Sheffield installs VR system

Researchers at the University of Sheffield are benefiting from the installation of a Virtalis ActiveWall Virtual Reality (VR) system and VR software enabler for PyMOL, which allows molecular data to be visualised and interacted with in stereoscopic 3D. The university’s Krebs Institute Structural Biology Group, within the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, has installed the immersive and interactive 3D visualisation system which draws on active stereo technology and features a custom screen, specialist computer, Virtalis custom software and projectors.

Dr Patrick Baker, a researcher in protein crystallography within the Group, commented: ‘Studying such complex structures can be mind boggling at times and, historically, we needed large polystyrene or wooden models to represent the structures. Twenty years ago, it took between one and five years to determine a structure. Now, we can have that structure within a week of creating the crystal. Structural biologists have long been at the forefront of what computers can do, owing to the enormous demands placed on them by molecular graphics. The advent of stereoscopic 3D viewing has been a further leap forward, because we can see so much more of the structure without becoming confused.’

Movements within the ActiveWall environment are tracked using a tracking system, which alters the perspective of the visuals according to the user’s position and orientation within the scene to give a natural and accurate sense of relationship and scale. The hand-held controller allows the immersive experience to be enhanced further as the user can navigate through the virtual world and pick and manipulate component parts in real-time. Through work conducted for D. James F. Hinton, University Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of Arkansas, which hosts the US Centre for Protein Function and Structure, Virtalis developed a VR software enabler for PyMOL, the most widely-used 3D molecular visualisation application.

‘Our ActiveWall allows us to share our results with colleagues, work with industrial collaborators and, of course, teach,’ Dr Baker explained. ‘Previously, I’ve used a 3D monitor, but the ActiveWall gives insights you couldn’t get with the monitor, as it was too zoomed in. Now I can walk right up to the screen to examine an area in detail and the rest of the molecule remains visible. It is an excellent teaching aid; we are using it to help students understand complex molecular structures. Also, this is a great collaborative working tool. We can get a group of about a dozen non-specialists all looking at the same thing, enabling productive discussions about the various structures.’

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