Author: Reiko Tsuneto

Everyday, scientists collect plenty of data to analyze in order to come up with some hypotheses. Since we live in a three-dimensional world, much of the information comes from events that are inherently three dimensional. Virtual reality technologies give scientists new ways of data vizualization; Mathematicians can see three-dimensional equations. Biologists can build 3-D models of genes. VR also helps researchers to create interactive simulations of scientific phenomena. Students also can take advantages of virtual reality. Reading textbook to understand the concept of gravity is one thing. Exploring through the worlds of zero gravity is another. As they say, 'seeing is believing'. Virtual reality is a new and effective tool for studies and researches in science.

Below are two examples of applications of virtual reality in science that currently exist.

Virtual-Physics Laboratory

Virtual-physics laboratory is a virtual laboratory in which the users can conduct simple experiments which can not be done in a real world. It was developed by R. Bowen Loftin at the University of Houston-Downtown. A user wearing headgear and a control glove has a panoramic view of the virtual laboratory; there is a table, a pendulum, some balls as well as few odd devices that govern the actions in the laboratory. Users see an image of their hand which duplicates the motion of the real thing. Certain gestures of the control glove mean specific actions. Pointing the index finger, for example, sends the virtual physicist flying across the room. Parameters in the room such as gravity, friction and drag can be controlled by users. The effects of the changes in the variables appear in the movements of the pendulum and the bouncing balls. Here, a ball can bounce as it would on Jupiter. The main goal of this virtual reality system is to give students proper concepts about physical laws of which they often get wrong ideas. In this artificial environment, it is easy to see the effects of gravity without any interference of friction which almost always plays a role in the motion of objects.

Molecule Models

Virtual reality helps us to manipulate 3-D structure models. The GROPE-III system, developed at the University of North Carolina is a unique molecular docking tool for chemists. Detecting allowable and forbidden docking sites between a drug and a protein or nucleic acid is crucial in designing effective drugs. Because both drug and nucleic acid molecules are complex 3-D structures, locating effective docking sites is a daunting task. Wearing polarized eyeglasses, the chemists view a stereoscopic image of the molecules, they can then use a special control device, Argonne remote manipulator(ARM), to grab one of the moleciles and attempt to dock it with the other. The chemists can even feel the force field surrounding the molecules. Unfortunately, the current system has lower frame rate than required for realistic modeling and the improper use of the manipulator arms could destroy themselves.


Aukstakalnis, S. & Blatner, D.(1992) SILICON MIRAGE:The Art and Science of Virtual Reality, Prechpit Press.

Yam, Phillip, 1993. Surreal Science. Scientific American, Feb. 1993, P103.

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