Researchers at the Scripps Institute just devised an incredibly interactive way to manipulate complex molecules, such as proteins and DNA, with your bare hands. Cool movies!

The new technology, which combines hand-held objects with sophisticated computer displays, is called Tangible Interfaces for Structural Molecular Biology, and its creators envision it as a technology useful for both educational and scientific research.

“We want to be able to understand, communicate, and interact with complex structures in natural ways,” explains Molecular Biology Professor Art Olson, who led the research described in this month’s issue of the journal Structure. “The easier it is to hold a biological molecule in your hands, the easier it will be to figure out what it is doing in the body.”

By using cutting-edge three-dimensional fabricating printers that “print” solid objects out of thousands of layers of plaster or plastic, the group can construct models of proteins, DNA, and other tiny biological molecules. These models can be touched, twisted, tweaked, and tossed from person to person.

Then, using a simple digital video camera to capture and track images of these objects, the group is able to create an artificial environment in which the computer interfaces with the object in what is known as augmented reality.

The molecular model appears on the computer screen, tumbling and turning in real time as the person holding the object manipulates it, and software designed by the Scripps Research team enables the computer to superimpose scientific information about the molecule onto the display.

More here.