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Virtual reality is more often associated with sci-fi films than molecular biology, but find out in this blog how a team from the MRC WIMM are hoping to change all that. Imagine being able to walk around the nucleus of a cell, or pick up and discuss a 3D image of a zebrafish embryo with a team of collaborators from all over the world in the same room. Sound like a distant fantasy? Jakub Chojnacki explains why it soon might not be…

Virtual reality is now a reality! Recent releases of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift mark an important milestone in the evolution of technology that offers users total immersion in interactive 3D environments.

With the ability to enable total immersion in arbitrarily designed environments, virtual reality (VR) can be particularly useful when visualising complex 3D scientific information such as genomics datasets or microscopy images. With a leading presence in fields of genomics analysis and image processing (Computational Biology Research Group) and fluorescence microscopy (Wolfson Imaging Centre), the MRC WIMM is in a unique position to be one of the first research institutes to use VR to aid scientific projects.

In one such project, Steve Taylor (Computational Biology Research Group) and myself, (MRC Human Immunology Unit) have teamed up to explore the potential of VR to visualise and manipulate fluorescence microscopy data.

The goal of this project is to create a streamlined VR microscopy data viewer, where data is automatically converted into 3D models and displayed in an interactive environment. These data visualisations can then be imported into a multi-user environment and discussed by collaborators from different geographical locations in a virtual meeting room.

Furthermore, this project aims to develop public engagement activities in which users can reach out, grab and explore complexities of 3D microscopy data. An early proof-of-concept demonstration video of microscopy data visualised in VR is shown below.

However, there are still important technical hurdles that must be overcome. The first issue is a faithful reproduction of fluorescence microscopy data in a 3D environment, which is crucial in order to keep the resulting models scientifically relevant. Currently, Steve and I are testing out different data translation and visualisation methods (like the one used in the demo above) to identify the most suitable one.

This project is still in its early stages and we are currently looking for short-term funding to help streamline this process. Meanwhile, if anyone at MRC WIMM or any other organisation has a set of complex 3D microscopy data (EM or fluorescence microscopy) that they would be willing to share as models to aid in the refinement of our visualisation techniques, please contact Jakub Chojnacki and Steve Taylor.

We plan to have a VR room in the new MRC WIMM Centre for Computational Biology (which will be officially opened by Professor Sir John Savill on 7th December, 2016) so scientists can investigate their data using this exciting new technique.

One commonly used saying states that “the sky is the limit”. However, with VR it can be argued that “the sky is no longer the limit” and we would like to see how far we can push its boundaries to both deliver new tools for scientific analysis, and to demonstrate to non‑scientists just how exciting biological research can be.