It’s not every day that you see how complex a molecule is with your own eyes. This is especially true for a virus as complex as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s even more impressive is how a pandemic can be solved by swapping an atom to create a drug that stops a virus in its tracks.
That’s why it was so amazing to hang out with the folks at Nanome, a VR app on Quest 2 and Meta Quest Pro (opens in a new tab) it makes it “easy” for researchers to experiment with complex molecules to make better pharmaceuticals to help the world. While researchers have used expensive medical equipment to analyze and reconstruct proteins and other molecular structures for decades, they’ve all been done on a flat screen with a computer mouse, which isn’t always the best tool. to precisely select points in a 3D model.
With VR headsets, researchers can actually get “inside” these models and manipulate them with the best tools we have: our hands. But it is not a theoretical model that has just emerged. Research papers have already been written (opens in a new tab) using these tools and could further help build drugs that prevent pandemics in the future. This, at least in part, helps explain what it means to be a “business class headset”.
Proteins, keys and a molecular escape room
Nanome is sort of what happens when you mix up Tiltbrush and Minecraft, an analogy made by one of the app’s creators as he gave me a tour of the app’s basic functions. The first part of my visit taught me how to use the periodic table of elements to use any element in the real world to build my own atoms, much like selecting from the table of elements available in Minecraft’s creative mode .
But if starting from scratch is too much – or just isn’t what you’re looking for in your molecular simulation – the app’s Med Chem tool looks and works a lot like Tiltbrush’s object selection tool, with the wrist-mounted Navigation Cube filled with examples of different molecular structures you can start from.
For someone like me who knows very little about atomic structures and what a seeker actually is Is with their time each day, it was eye-opening to peek into this mysterious world so close and personal.
Grabbing, scaling and rotating a molecular structure like that of SARS-CoV-2 is an almost priceless upgrade from 2D versions of the same thing on a monitor. Keita Funakawa, COO of Nanome, demonstrated the differences between the two and showed how easy it is to get an in-depth view with Nanome’s intuitive VR interface.
As researchers spend “hours, days, even months” grabbing and rotating these molecular structures with a mouse – a tool intended to interact with 2D elements on a 2D monitor – there is a certain perspective that is literally lost in translation when interacting in this way.
Nanome allows researchers to have a clearer view of the actual molecular structure because it allows them to really perceive the depth and complexity of these patterns. Few tools are as precise as a pair of human eyes and hands, especially when it comes to studying something with a human brain.
More importantly, however, Funakawa points out that in biology “structure is function”. Being able to spatially understand the structure of an element or a virus is key to understanding how to create the key that stops a protein structure from doing the job it was designed to do – an essential part of creating a drug. that helps real people.
When I asked Funakawa the price of the Quest Pro and whether or not it was justifiable, his answer was pretty clear. While Nanome has been around for years now, a headset like the Quest Pro makes it better for several reasons.
Being wireless has always been a strength of the Quest line, and it means a researcher can more easily turn the headset on and off during their work day and just get their work done instead of messing around with a PC or cable.
The Quest Pro’s controllers are simply better (opens in a new tab) than other controllers before them, because they can not only track themselves – eliminating the dead zones of previous Quest controller technology – but they are also high-precision instruments that allow users to locate small objects and to enter them.
The Quest Pro’s headset design is much more conducive to a work environment than the Quest 2. Being a mixed reality headset means you can still see around you with the headset on – something that’s important in a work environment. lab – and capabilities like color passthrough mean you can feel like you can see everything in the room around you while virtual objects also coexist in the space.
As for price, big pharma like Pfizer and Novartis — the latter that the Nanome team worked with to develop a product that is actually useful for researchers – don’t really care about $1,500 equipment (the price of the Quest Pro) as it helps them better and more efficiently design a drug that will likely earn the company billions of dollars .
The social quotient
You will notice two Keitas in the screenshot above. This is because we are looking at a spatial recording of the session which was taken earlier in the demo. Researchers often use audio recordings and written notes to keep track of what is happening in their research. Although these notes can sometimes be personal, chances are that other colleagues will also share notes to better collaborate on a solution.
But what if you could just registration all your notes, not just the audio part, but the walk through the molecular structure you just changed? It’s next level stuff because it uses more of the human brain to keep track of what’s going on, and it means someone working in Australia could share their scientific findings with someone working in Los Angeles without one of them have to wake up at 3 am.
Nanome uses Meta’s avatar system, so users have a consistent look with the other social apps they use on the headset. In a more professional setting, it is very likely that this avatar resembles your real personality as much as possible. It also means that people who are used to working with you physically – or just via Zoom calls – will immediately recognize you in VR.
It also means that researchers and other staff can work together in virtual space on projects without having to share a monitor or a single point of view. In the 45-minute demo, I was in my spare room while Funakawa and Nanome CEO Steve McCloskey were physically together in the same meeting room at Nanome’s California headquarters. From my perspective, it felt like we were all in the same room chatting with each other as the duo showed off what Nanome could do.
In many ways, it feels like what a metaverse actually looks like. It is a virtual space that goes beyond the physical limits of what we are generally used to in the real world. It’s a way to both work and play without worrying about transportation, adapting schedules or even specialized equipment for the trip.
Not just for drugs
McCloskey also took the time to show off some of Nanome’s other features during the demo. While we’re still looking at things at the molecular or atomic level, this next demo focused on how companies like Samsung and LG could use a product like Nanome on the Quest Pro to make better batteries for all sorts of devices.
Additionally, apps like Nanome can be used on headsets like the Quest Pro (or even the Quest 2) in classrooms to replace the traditional chemistry kid that schools have to purchase for each student. Instead of spending $100 per student on a chemistry kit that contains only a limited number of parts for students to assemble their own molecules, an app like Nanome allows unlimited parts for construction.
Not only that, but Nanome isn’t just a Lego simulator that lets people mindlessly connect pieces together. It is a comprehensive simulation engine that creates scientifically accurate simulations that can be used in real lab work. This includes measuring the tiny distance between atoms – which are fractions of the size of even tiny electrical gates inside a computer processor – and visualizing the actual reactions of atoms when you swap them with each other. against others.
While the Quest Pro isn’t exactly cheap, an app like Nanome on the Quest store means powerful professional chemistry tools are being democratized for more people to use than ever before.
McCloskey, Funakawa and the Nanome team envision that “one billion scientists worldwide [could] to do cutting-edge research to help humanity in the metaverse.” It’s a bold vision, sure, but it also shows the power that tools like Nanome could give ordinary people.