Skip to main content

VR lets scientists shrink down and ‘walk around’ inside their own cells

In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a U.S. submarine and its crew are shrunk down to microscopic size and injected into the body of a comatose Soviet doctor who has defected to the U.S., in an effort to destroy a blood clot in his brain that threatens his life. Since then, the idea of being able to shrink people down to microscale, often to solve some kind of medical challenge, has made its way into various parts of popular culture. But not, as of yet, into reality.

Sadly, scientists and engineers still have yet to develop a real-life shrink ray. But investigators from the U.K.’s University of Cambridge and 3D image analysis software company Lume VR have come up with a method that uses virtual reality to allow researchers to “walk around” inside individual cells in order to better understand some fundamental problems in biology and, in the process, learn to develop better treatments.

“Biology occurs in 3D, and visualizing 3D data on a 2D screen is restrictive,” Steven Lee, a reader in biophysical chemistry in Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry and leader of The Lee Lab, told Digital Trends. “By implementing data into a VR environment, one can intuitively walk around in their data, viewing all three dimensions in one setting. [Our software], vLUME, instantaneously allows you to visualize artifacts, clusters and various characteristics in VR that would be time-consuming otherwise.”

Being able to, for instance, image an immune cell from your own blood and then look around it in three dimensions is certainly impressive. As weird as the idea of exploring a giant-sized single cell might sound, it can help make the process of understanding less abstract and let researchers do things like watch how antigen cells trigger immune responses in the body on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

VR look inside cells
University of Cambridge

Turning microscope images into a three-dimensional environment

As you might expect, this visualization process is pretty complex. Anoushka Handa, another researcher on the project, who carried out the aforementioned immune cell demonstration, explained that the approach uses a technique called super-resolution imaging, which transforms a flat microscope image into an explorable, 3D one by building up an image one point at a time.

“A typical image contains millions of individual points, called a localization,” Handa told Digital Trends. “This allows us to view biology at higher spatial resolutions than would be possible with conventional imaging. Each of these localizations represents a particular biological molecule of interest, whether that is a single protein [or] single antibody, bound to an individual fluorescent molecule. We [then] use a special optical element that enables you to determine the position of these probes in 3D, from a 2D picture. This is [called] the ‘double-helix point spread function.’”

Once these localizations have been processed and pinpointed, the file can be uploaded into the VR viewing system and opened up in vLUME.

“Future directions could include the incorporation of a multiuser tool for numerous users to use vLUME within the same environment,” Lee said. “This enables researchers to quickly interact with their data remotely, which, given the pandemic, is becoming more useful. In addition, we are looking at incorporating advanced computation imaging tools such as focused training methods for machine learning to help better understand complex 3D data.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Methods.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
The metaverse is ‘off limits’ for Apple’s upcoming VR headset
A person wearing a virtual reality headset.

News on Apple’s upcoming mixed reality headset has been accelerating in recent weeks, with several fresh reports shedding further details on the project. Now, reliable reporter Mark Gurman has chimed in with his thoughts on Apple’s vision for the device.

In his latest Power On newsletter, Gurman explained that Apple’s headset will be used primarily for short bursts of activity rather than prolonged sessions. This contrasts with other companies that are seeking to build a "metaverse" of immersive experiences that replicate real life in a digital realm.

Read more
This futuristic haptic vest should make virtual reality feel more realistic
actronika haptic vest skinetic vr more realistic virtual reality

Actronika, a startup company known for its HD haptics technology has a futuristic new product. Expected to be on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2022 is Skinetic, a haptic vest that should make virtual reality experiences feel a lot more realistic.

Skinetic works much as you'd expect. The wearable vest makes VR feel more immersive by bringing life-like sensations and touch-like experiences to areas of the body like the chest when paired with a compatible headset. As reported by Business Wire, the technology "works with 20 patented vibrotactile voice-coil motors, capable of generating a wide range of vibrations that cover 100% of human vibrotactile perception."

Read more
Among Us VR mode lets players act sus in first person
A crewmate presses buttons in Among Us VR.

Innersloth's Among Us, the massively popular multiplayer game of cartoonish Mafia, is going to let players step into the suits of its crewmates soon. A VR version of Among Us was revealed at tonight's Game Awards show. with a quick trailer showing the game in action.

Among Us VR is fairly self-explanatory -- it's the game everyone knows, but in a virtual reality setting. It still splits players into two groups: Crewmates and imposters. The former has to complete tasks and identify the imposters, while the latter has to stealthily slay any and all crewmates, all while maintaining their cover. The trick is that players will have to complete their tasks and take out other players in VR, which will likely require a bit more dexterity than the PC and console versions of the game.

Read more