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New 3-D Software Developed at Duquesne Promises to Engage Kids with Atoms

A Duquesne University computer science student, guided by a Duquesne chemistry and biochemistry professor, has developed software that turns gaming equipment and an off-the-shelf computer into a stunning 3-D world of molecular and atomic virtual reality.

The work of junior computer science and mathematics major Brian Adams, along with Dr. Jeffry D. Madura, the Lambert F. Minucci Endowed Chair in Engineering and Computational Sciences, has resulted in a potential tool for teaching kids about molecular and atomic structure and dynamics. With Adams' work, this scientific tool now can be attained at one-thousandth the cost of a typical room-sized, $300,000 visualization system with multiple projectors.

"No average school could afford that," said Adams. "But they could afford $350 for each head-mounted device, and they already have computers."

The goggle-like device that provides the 3-D vision, called an Oculus Rift, is a prototype created by some of the biggest names in the gaming industry and a $2.5 million Kickstarter campaign. Stereoscopic lenses inside curve to properly project on a flat screen. A computer-mounted camera tracks the user's every turn, bringing the panoramic experience to life. Users can manipulate a molecule, identify what is binding where and see structures in a stunningly different way.

"The scientific tools, such as the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, that we use to visualize the molecular world are typically driven by the gaming community," said Madura, co-editor of the Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modeling. "Brian is taking advantage of his interests, skills and knowledge of this new state-of-the-art virtual reality system to help us learn how the Oculus Rift can be used to interact and analyze the biomolecular systems that we simulate on supercomputers."

Adams computes about 80 lines of programming per atom to keep the correct perspective and sense of scale.

"There's a lot of algebra, a lot of math in understanding how things turn and structures move," said Adams, who lives in Mount Lebanon.

He next hopes to advance hand commands that would allow users to "feel" molecules and to develop movie-like motion and stop-motion so that teachers could point out specific atoms and changes at different points in time.

"I want to inspire kids to become chemists and doctors," Adams said.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.