One of the biggest barriers in communicating the work done at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research is that cells and their components don’t really look like the 2D figures in textbooks.
The institute has turned to virtual reality (VR) to better engage stakeholders, helping them visualise the constant 3D movement of cellular activity, with elements of gamification added to increase users’ understanding of how cells function.
The VR experience was developed in-house by biomedical animator Dr Kate Patterson and Mark Arrebola, who also works at the 3D Visualisation and Aesthetic Laboratory at UNSW Sydney.
Dubbed 'Cell Explorer', the game first shrinks the user down to the size of a cell before taking them inside to observe and interact with the molecules and structures that keep the cell functioning.
Since much of Garvan’s work centres on the study of genes, the VR user is then taken inside the cell nucleus where they can use hand controllers to build a DNA helix base by base, which can be observed and felt through the hand controllers as the processes of gene activation or deactivation takes place.
While Cell Explorer is primarily targeted at adults who have an interest in Garvan’s work but nor formal training in science, the institute also sees the value in using VR as a tool to help students of all ages better understand cellular biology and genomics, Dr Patterson said.
“Virtual reality is crucial in this context – it provides an opportunity to visualise what physics just doesn’t allow us to see. We hope it will provide a more meaningful and memorable way for people to engage with research,” she said in a statement.
Cell Explorer is currently available at the Cell Observatory at the Garvan Institute, with the team already working on a mobile version that will be available for download early next year.