If you have been a gamer in your life or have seen somebody moving their head in awe with their cell phone attached to goggles, you’ve probably already been exposed to the next generation of data visualization technologies. Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive experience in which the user wears a device and occludes the rest of the environment. Although comprehensive, this technology can cause vertigo in some users. Augmented reality (AR) inserts virtual objects into the “real” world. PokéMon Go is one of the most successful recent AR efforts, requiring only a cell phone with a camera to chase digital creatures. Mixed Reality (MR) is an extension of AR with the additional capability of anchoring the visualizations to objects using surface mapping and other spatial technologies. Mixed reality visualizations can be pinned to a wall, counter or fixed position in space and persist across multiple user sessions.
Life happens in 3D but we use two dimensional, flat monitors to understand everything from protein structures to cellular dynamics. In the 1990s I had my first exposure to molecular visualization with a Silicon Graphics workstation and the Biosym package for visualizing protein structures. This server required a dedicated room and UNIX knowledge to work with the files. When I attended a training workshop, I was struck by how many users were from pharma but then realized that the earliest practical applications of molecular visualization would be in evaluating small molecule docking with target structures. Indeed, later in the 1990s the development of HIV protease inhibitors demonstrated the power of rational drug design.
In his recent book tour, the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella identified mixed reality and cloud technologies as the two technologies that he thinks will have transformational effects. Facebook spent two billion dollars to acquire the Oculus VR technology. Cell phone companies are investing in inexpensive kits to turn their devices into VR goggles and are competing aggressively to provide the best VR experience.