Using virtual reality systems to teach chemistry in 3-D

July 2, 2018 by Bob Yirka, report
An abstract representation of the soccer-ball shaped buckminsterfullerene molecules in virtual reality. Credit: Mike O'Connor, in collaboration with Interactive Scientific Ltd, under CC BY-ND 4.0.

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions across the U.K. has developed a framework for using virtual reality (VR) systems to teach chemistry. In their paper published on the open access site Science Advances, the team describes the system they developed and the advantages it has over standard teaching methods.

For many years, chemistry students have been taught to manipulate physical models depicting as a means of learning how they work. The researchers note that such models are not up to the task of showing how molecules work dynamically—they cannot show movement or the flexibility of molecules, which leaves students having to imagine how they might look. In more recent years, computer applications that allow students to watch and even manipulate molecules onscreen have led to improvements in . But, as the researchers also note, such apps that generally make use of touch screens still lack the required hands-on approach. To improve on such applications, the researchers have created a VR system that is able to show as they exist in a 3-D space. And even better, users are able to physically manipulate the molecules to learn more about their properties.

With their new system, the researchers point out, users are able to achieve co-location, which they describe as a phenomenon in which interactions in an actual 3-D physical space align with interactions in a simulated 3-D environment. Their system is cloud-based, which means the data used in the simulations can be constantly updated and improved, even as the system is being used.

Multiple users performing 3-D molecular tasks in the cloud-enabled virtual reality platform developed in collaboration between the University of Bristol and Interactive Scientific Ltd. Credit: Helen Deeks and Matt Sutton, in collaboration with Interactive Scientific Ltd, under CC BY-ND 4.0.

The system currently allows six people to use the system at the same time—they can be in the same room, or other parts of the world. Users use wireless controllers that behave like tweezers, allowing them to grab molecules and their parts.

To test their system, the researchers asked 32 volunteers to carry out three different tasks: manipulating a through a carbon nanotube, manipulating an organic helicene molecule to change its rotation, and finally, to tie a knot in a polypeptide. They report that most of the volunteers, none of whom had ever used a VR system before, were able to use the system to some degree. Other less rigorous testing showed the system capable of doing things like allowing two people to toss a molecular buckyball back and forth across a real room. The researchers also report that the volunteers reported preferring the VR system over other applications, such as touchscreens.

A user interactively guides a ligand to its binding site in the protein trypsin in virtual reality, adjusting visuals as befits the task. Credit: Helen Deeks, in collaboration with Interactive Scientific Ltd, under CC BY-ND 4.0.
A user interactively guides a ligand to its binding site in the protein beta-lactamase in virtual reality. Credit: Helen Deeks, in collaboration with Interactive Scientific Ltd, under CC BY-ND 4.0.

Explore further: Less is more when it comes to predicting molecules' conductivity

More information: Michael O'Connor et al. Sampling molecular conformations and dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality framework, Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat2731

We describe a framework for interactive molecular dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality (VR) environment, combining rigorous cloud-mounted atomistic physics simulations with commodity VR hardware, which we have made accessible to readers (see It allows users to visualize and sample, with atomic-level precision, the structures and dynamics of complex molecular structures "on the fly" and to interact with other users in the same virtual environment. A series of controlled studies, in which participants were tasked with a range of molecular manipulation goals (threading methane through a nanotube, changing helical screw sense, and tying a protein knot), quantitatively demonstrate that users within the interactive VR environment can complete sophisticated molecular modeling tasks more quickly than they can using conventional interfaces, especially for molecular pathways and structural transitions whose conformational choreographies are intrinsically three-dimensional. This framework should accelerate progress in nanoscale molecular engineering areas including conformational mapping, drug development, synthetic biology, and catalyst design. More broadly, our findings highlight the potential of VR in scientific domains where three-dimensional dynamics matter, spanning research and education.

Anybody wishing to try out the tasks described in the paper can download the software at, and launch their own cloud-hosted session.

Related Stories

Using AI to make push-notification apps smarter

March 21, 2018

A pair of researchers in Taiwan has developed an artificial intelligence system to filter smartphone push notifications, thus allowing only those the user wants. In a paper uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, TonTon Hsien-De ...

New method offers first look at super-cold carbon molecules

March 15, 2018

Science just got a little cooler in the Air Force Research Laboratory. Using a helium droplet method that chills molecular species to nearly absolute zero, researchers in the Aerospace Systems Directorate's Turbine Engine ...

Building 3-D models of molecules with RealityConvert

December 12, 2017

Denis Fourches wants to make the search for new drugs faster and less expensive. So he uses powerful computers to help model interactions between chemical compounds and biological targets to predict the compound's effectiveness, ...

Tracking a solvation process step by step

December 21, 2017

Chemists of Ruhr-Universität Bochum have tracked with unprecedented spatial resolution how individual water molecules attach to an organic molecule. They used low-temperature scanning tunneling microscopy to visualize the ...

Recommended for you

What happened before the Big Bang?

March 26, 2019

A team of scientists has proposed a powerful new test for inflation, the theory that the universe dramatically expanded in size in a fleeting fraction of a second right after the Big Bang. Their goal is to give insight into ...

Probiotic bacteria evolve inside mice's GI tracts

March 26, 2019

Probiotics—which are living bacteria taken to promote digestive health—can evolve once inside the body and have the potential to become less effective and sometimes even harmful, according to a new study from Washington ...

Cellular microRNA detection with miRacles

March 26, 2019

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short noncoding regulatory RNAs that can repress gene expression post-transcriptionally and are therefore increasingly used as biomarkers of disease. Detecting miRNAs can be arduous and expensive as ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 03, 2018
where's your frequency analysis, zoom, response to plane wave, response to a single charge's motion, etc.

it's only a superimposition of solutions; pick your elemental distributions; initial states; zoom in time(Lambda), space(Lambda), etc. a child's games; note: E is defined for each center in all space, addit up

juz the same template with diff attributes, charge
not rated yet Jul 03, 2018
easier without QM!
not rated yet Jul 03, 2018
each charge only see's a superimposed charge at +/- r of +/- q; therefore each center as an object; global object defines the space of interest, add some cool visuals, colors, ... it ain't dat hard!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.