New paper: Game on, Science - how video game technology may help biologists tackle visualization challenges

The video games industry develops ever more advanced technologies to improve rendering, image quality, ergonomics and user experience of their creations providing very simple to use tools to design new games. In the molecular sciences, only a small number of experts with specialized know-how are able to design interactive visualization applications, typically static computer programs that cannot easily be modified. Are there lessons to be learned from video games? Could their technology help us explore new molecular graphics ideas and render graphics developments accessible to non-specialists? This approach points to an extension of open computer programs, not only providing access to the source code, but also delivering an easily modifiable and extensible scientific research tool. In this work, we will explore these questions using the Unity3D game engine to develop and prototype a biological network and molecular visualization application for subsequent use in research or education. We have compared several routines to represent spheres and links between them, using either built-in Unity3D features or our own implementation. These developments resulted in a stand-alone viewer capable of displaying molecular structures, surfaces, animated electrostatic field lines and biological networks with powerful, artistic and illustrative rendering methods. We consider this work as a proof of principle demonstrating that the functionalities of classical viewers and more advanced novel features could be implemented in substantially less time and with less development effort. Our prototype is easily modifiable and extensible and may serve others as starting point and platform for their developments. A webserver example, standalone versions for MacOS X, Linux and Windows, source code, screen shots, videos and documentation are available at the address:

Z. Lv, A. Tek, F. Da Silva, C. Empereur-mot, M. Chavent and M. Baaden:
Game on, Science - how video game technology may help biologists tackle visualization challenges PLoS ONE 8(3):e57990.