DU student, professor create program to view molecules in 3-D

By Sydnie Pennington | The Duquesne Duke

A Duquesne computer science student and a chemistry professor have developed a new program that turns cutting edge virtual reality technology into a learning experience for those studying molecules.  

Junior computer science major Brian Adams, with the assistance of chemistry professor Jeffry Madura, created a software program which allows an individual to view molecular structures in three dimensions by looking through a specially-designed headset.

The project began last year when Madura noticed that there were not many affordable options for people to observe molecules in three dimensions. Madura reached out to the computer science professors and students to help design a solution, and Adams volunteered. According to Madura,  Adams’ experience background in programming and algebra was perfect for the task.

Madura and Adams developed the idea of using already-existing video game technology to create a virtual world of enlarged molecules. They used the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset originally funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and expanded its scope of use.

At the beginning of the project, Madura’s goal was to create “a virtual world of molecules.”  Adams began by trying to manipulate existing computer programs to create the world Madura was looking.  

However, no program suited Adams’ needs perfectly, and so he developed a new program from scratch.

Adams said the program he created offers a different way of understanding the molecular world.  It is not straining to the eye, like previous methods of 3-D molecular studies.   

Adams said the technology could be used in classrooms as a “fantastic way to teach.”

Madura said there are different ways to view molecules in three dimensions, which include using the traditional red and green 3-D glasses, similar to those given at 3-D movies. By looking at certain pictures, people can also try to cross their eyes, which can make the image look 3-D.

Madura said there are pitfalls to these other types 3-D technology.  Red and green glasses do not work for colorblind people, but the Oculus Rift will work for them.  

Additionally, it can be very difficult for a viewer to cross his or her eyes to see an image in 3-D, which can make this option “hit or miss” for many trying to view the molecule, according to Madura.

Madura said the Oculus Rift offers a way to view these molecules with less strain to the eye, and that engaging the software program paired with the Oculus Rift has the potential to be useful for students.  

“The Oculus Rift gives you a different perspective,” Madura said. “You can understand depth.”

Adams and Madura hope to continue to enhance this technology by pairing the software program and Oculus Rift with the Leap Motion Controller, a motion-activated video game controller that lets users move things on screen by just moving their hands.

Adding the Leap Motion Controller would allow the view to rotate the molecule in front of them to gain even greater depth and perspective of the molecule. Adams and Madura also hope to create a way for their program to show the distance between molecules.  

“This technology will have the potential to gain greater understanding of molecules, faster,” Madura said.

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