A new microscope uses virtual reality to let you walk through atomic-level vistas

In case you ever really wanted to wander around the face of a penny, there’s a new technology on the horizon that may be able to help. Nanotronics Imaging has created a new system, called nVisible, that lets anyone walk through a three-dimensional, digital visualization of a microscopic landscape, using a virtual reality headset.

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What rubber looks like in the nVisible virtual world. (Nanotronics Imaging)

The technology utilizes the company’s 3D-printed nSpec microscope system to pull together a virtual world from a microscope slide. The nSpec captures light from multiple angles and maps what it sees to coordinates. The points are plotted onto the virtual reality “atmosphere” that Nanotronics created, CEO Matthew Putman tells Quartz. The system works with Oculus, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard, and the worlds it creates out of sub-molecular images are pretty surreal. The dark, hilly vistas are like a cross between an old 3D video game and the surface of another planet.

“I just left Yosemite [National Park] and the mountains and cliffs were stunning,” Putman says.”As you look through the nano- and micro-world with nVisible, the same is true of the hills and valleys of molecules and crystals.”

NVisible could allow scientists and engineers to explore the surfaces of materials at the nanoscopic level. Putman said he envisions his software being used to create new generations of tiny objects—think nanobots, carbon nanotubes, and anything else too small to see—as researchers will be able to interact with materials as if they were life-sized. As Putman said in a press release: “To create the future, you have to be able to see it.”

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Nanotronics’ 3D-printed microscope. (Nanotronics Imaging)

The nSpec system is not cheap—the microscopes range from $40,000-$70,000—but Putman says that Nanotronics is looking into ways to “democratize” the virtual reality component so that it’s available to a wider market. “I would love to make it as a service or an educational tool for less than $100,” he tells Quartz.

“There are also grander ideas we have that involve a user being able to label and manipulate that terrain in real time,” Putman says. Potentially, this would open up the possibility to design, in real time, objects that are one one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

NVisible is debuting at the TriBeca Disruptive Innovation Awards in New York today (April 24), and at the Village Fête in Brooklyn on May 3.

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