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Computational Biologist Stephen Taylor and his team were awarded an Innovation grant to develop a software package that allows researchers to use virtual reality for scientific research and public engagement.

© Martin Phelps

Virtual Reality (VR) is a fantastic tool to interact with complex 3 D objects and data, and an excellent way to showcase research in an intuitive way. Yet the lack of computational ‘know how’ is a barrier for biomedical scientists interested in exploring the technology. Stephen Taylor, from the MRC WIMM Centre for Computational Biology, developed a software called BabelVR which aims to overcome this obstacle. BabelVR allows 3D images from a variety of devices (such as CT scanners, microscopes, etc) to be viewed and interacted with in a VR environment. The prototype is already being used at the MRC WIMM by researchers working in 3D microscopy and craniosynostosis. However, in its current form it still requires considerable support from Steve to use it.

In his submission to the University of Oxford IT Innovation Challenge 2018, Stephen proposed developing the prototype into a fully featured software package that would make it easier to transform data and images into a robust, interactive, and customisable VR experience by any interested researcher. The £50,000 grant will also allow the inclusion of additional features that can maximise the way researchers understand and interact with their data, including new ways to annotate, measure, share and animate 3D structures in VR. In addition, Stephen’s team will also work with Oxford Digital Education to help put together a course with the aim of teaching other groups how to deploy and use VR services.

Stephen TaylorStephen said "This research will allow us to understand how VR can most effectively be deployed in a variety of medical situations, from manipulation and annotation of complex images using CT and MRI, to actually doing pre op simulations before operations."

The software will be useful not only to advance and innovate scientific research, but also to engage with the public.  Previously, MRC WIMM and Goldsmith’s researchers have developed a set of public engagement activities and VR experience around the concept of DNA folding, a complex process to explain in words but which becomes intuitively understood when observed in 3D. The ‘DNA origami’ stand made its debut at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2017, and has since been engaging with the public at Cheltenham Science Festival and the Curiosity Carnival, as well as school and Institute visits. Its power to inspire a new generation of scientists, and break a more ‘traditional’ view of what biomedical research entails, is very clear, with a recent visitor commenting ‘I hadn’t realised that virtual reality is so closely linked to biology’

The IT innovation Challenge, part of the University’s IT Capital Plan, aims to fund innovative projects which will enhance the staff or student experience at Oxford through digital means.The 2018 scheme was the Intelligent Campus, and encouraged the exploration of emerging technologies, from AI to VR.

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