Prospective students at Universiteit Utrecht, one of BioExcel’s partners, got a chance to experience biology in a whole new way at a recent open day: virtual reality. Using an HTC Vive headset and the UnityMol virtualisation engine, visitors to the open day were able to explore and discover molecules in a hands-on way.

The popularisation of VR technologies has great potential in the field of scientific outreach as it presents users with an opportunity to really interact with scientific concepts. The HTC Vive is a popular consumer headset that, in conjunction with a PC, is able to run simulation demos. The HTC Vive, in particular among VR headsets, is praised for its use of external ‘lighthouses’, which create a three-dimensional space for users to explore. This allows them to interact with their virtual environment in a realistic, physical manner. Another positive feature of the Vive headset is the controllers, two handheld batons that serve to bring the users’ hands into the VR environment. This allows them to touch and move things in a natural way, making it easier for people to relate to the images they are seeing. Together, these create an immersive experience that cannot be matched by a virtual representation of a molecule on a screen.


UnityMol is a virtualisation engine for molecules developed by Marc Baaden’s group at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique in Paris. It is designed to be interactive, to allow users to explore and better understand how molecules function. It uses the Unity game engine to accurately representing the molecule in a 3D space, where it can be manipulated and explored in depth. The VR demo on display allowed visitors to explore a haemoglobin molecule. Their challenge was to explore the molecule and find the bound oxygen molecules, as well as explore the structure of the protein, both from the outside and within, to see how the amino acids interact to hold the protein together.

Introducing prospective biology students to simulation early on is a great way to familiarise them with concepts that are becoming ever more relevant to the field. Advanced simulations are a critical tool in the biomolecular sector, discovering how molecules interact and how to manipulate them. Our goal in BioExcel is to support and enable the use of advanced simulation in this sector.