Are you a 'hands on' person? Some people can readily grasp abstract concepts; for example, relating the symbols on a map with the actual roads and places that it is meant to depict. For others, they have to see something, or touch it, in order to understand how it relates to other real world objects. However you approach learning about and interacting with the world around us, there are times when all of us can more quickly and easily grasp something mentally if we can see it and hold it in our hands. That's why models are an accepted tradition in both education and business.
Chemistry is a prime example of a field that benefits from the use of models. Like the symbols on a map, molecular models present a simplified view of a more complicated environment, with symbols helping us to more easily visualize the most important features. The first physical model of a molecule was created around 1860. Since then, different types of models have been used. The most common is probably the ball and stick style. In this model, individual atoms are represented as balls, and the bonds between them are shown as sticks or rods.
Such models work well to help students or researchers to visualize molecules, at least simple ones. There are a couple of problems with creating physical models of more complex molecules. As the complexity of a molecule increases, it becomes more labor intensive to create a model of it. If models are created, they are often so fragile and complicated that some of their value is lost.
Recently, advances in computer science have once again made molecular models feasible tools for educators and researchers. These advances include a couple of different approaches. The HIT Lab at the University of Washington and the Molecular Graphics Lab at the Scripps Research Institute are working on a joint project to develop unique interface tools to assist teachers and researchers in the field of molecular biology. They first create physical models using automated fabrication technology. Essentially, this is a device that works like a printer, but instead of recreating a two-dimensional picture or piece of text, it creates three-dimensional, solid objects. This saves the model maker time and money. These 3D molecular models are then used with virtual reality or mixed reality graphics, sound, voice interaction, and haptics. Haptics relate to the sense of touch, which can be simulated using a force display device connected to a computer program. This is very useful in representing strong electrostatic or long range molecular forces.
A similar technology was developed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Work began in the 1960s on technologies that would allow a user to see, hear, and feel in a virtual world. This research led to a project called GROPE, which had the goal of developing a haptic interface for molecular forces. Decades later, the GROPE concept has been incorporated into a head mounted display and a force feedback exoskeleton.
Using this type of equipment, a chemist or student can see possible ways to combine different molecules. It also allows them to manipulate molecules and feel whether they 'want' to move or combine in a certain way. This allows a 'hands-on' approach to chemistry or molecular biology. By allowing us to see and feel the unseen, this technology promises to make it quicker and easier for students to comprehend the structures of and interactions between molecules. Its use in education will have the added benefit of familiarizing future doctors and scientists with a valuable research tool.