VR Opens Up New Ways to Explore the Microcosm

If you’ve ever run through the Oculus Dreamdeck experience you’ll know there’s one slice of the demo where you find yourself standing inside what appears to be a vein, blocked at one end by an insect (eew) with red blood cells floating all around you.

That sort of perspective is something that just hasn’t been possible until VR simulations made it so. Effectively shrinking us down so that we can explore the microscopic world as if it was macro-scale.

It’s like the classic Fantastic Voyage where shrinking technology lets a submarine crew enter a human to explore and make repairs. Although we’ll probably never have such a fanciful technology, VR can now be used to visualize the micro world for actual scientific inquiry.

Small Problems, Big Consequences

This novel application of VR technology comes courtesy of the Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro- engineering. By taking heaps of scanned 3D data from real human brains the eggheads based at the University of Geneva it is now possible to move away from 2D microscope images and conduct studies through embodied VR exploration.

Too Much To Handle

The problem is that modern brain scanning systems produce far too much detail and data volume than can readily be visualized through traditional means. Science is primarily about observation, but when it comes to things that lay beyond the naked eye observation has to happen through instrumentation and visualization techniques that make them comprehensible to humans.

For example, looking up at the sky with the naked eye only tells you so much about the stars and other heavenly bodies. You can observe patterns and try to guess what they are, but the limits are strict. Cue the invention of the telescope and suddenly we know that some of those “stars” are in fact other planets.

However, those telescopes were pretty primitive. Looking at Mars early astronomers thought that there were water canals. Better instruments later showed there was no such thing.

In a similar way, brain scanning technology has now improved so much that using VR as exploratory scientific instrumentation might be the only way to make sense of the new connections and structures that are visible.

Seeing is Believing

Check out this example of what a 3D visualisation of a mouse brain looks like:


That’s the sort of complex structure scientists can now get up close and personal with using VR. With the rise of other medical technologies such as robotic surgery systems and tiny cameras, VR is set to work itself even further into the field of medicine. It’s an exciting time for anyone who might need some of that modern medicine at some point in the future!

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