This is some fun stuff that we’ve been building in the Intangible Realities Laboratory! This video shows my perspective as I tie a knot in 17-Alanine using the Narupa framework while wearing the beautiful new customized ‘Mudra’ VR data gloves designed by Becca Rose & Rachel Freire. Alex Binnie did a great job building the software interface for the gloves. The ‘Mudra’ gloves are so named because they have been designed specifically to enable efficient pinching and grasping of the sort required in a VR-enabled real-time simulation environment. Stay tuned, we’re writing the paper up now, and we’ll soon be open-sourcing the design, for both the glove design and for the software interface.
Sounding the gong & ringing the bells the moment we set the project free!
After nearly three years of research & development, I’m happy to announce that we have finally open sourced our multi-person, virtual-reality enabled, real-time simulation framework under GPL. It lets groups of researchers go into VR, and touch molecular objects as if they were tangible objects. Our working name for the project is ‘Narupa’, which we arrived by combining the prefix ‘nano’ and the suffix ‘arupa’. Wikipedia explains how arūpa is a Sanskrit word describing non-physical and non-material objects. It seemed to us a good concept for describing what it’s like to interact with simulated nanoscale objects. It’s still a name-in-progress, so let us know how you find it.
We first prototyped this technology in Jan 2016 at London’s Barbican Arts Centre, as part of an ‘Open Lab’ residency which I organised using funding from the EPSRC and the Royal Society. It involved several participants from my University of Bristol research lab and also Phil Tew from my company Interactive Scientific Ltd., all of whom feature in a blog post & video which we made at the time. We’ve been hard at work in the intervening years, for example using it to carry out the studies described in our 2018 open-access paper in Science Advances. A number of my academic and industrial research colleagues have already joined us in our community efforts. I look forward to announcing a whole host of interesting partnerships over the next few months. It’s been particularly exciting for me to observe how our consciously open-source ethos has inspired my international research colleagues to release open-source versions of their own simulation codes, in order to participate in a community. We’ve had several emails from excited collaborators who have cloned the repo and are getting things running.
I’m absolutely delighted to have set this project free into the intellectual & cultural commons. Getting it out there has not been entirely straightforward, but now it’s done, set free into the commons as an open resource for enabling communities to cooperatively learn from one another. The video I’ve embedded in this post marks the moment at which we set Narupa free, complete with an ad hoc ceremony involving gongs and bells. It’s a credit to the fantastically creative VR researchers that I have the privilege to work with – Mike O’Connor, Alex Jones, Helen Deeks, Lisa May Thomas, Rebecca Walters, Simon Bennie, and Alex Binnie – these are people who know when to sound the gongs and ring the bells!
Stay tuned over the next few months, because there’s plenty more on the horizon. We’re building loads of cool new open-source features like quantum mechanical force engines, real-time data sonification and audio, and also code enabling you to stream your own real-time simulations from the cloud! We’ve also got a number of papers in the pipeline which will be coming out soon, where we will demonstrate a whole host of interesting application domains. We’ve even included instructions on how to build your own multi-person VR lab.
I’ve recently started a new community-focused project called SimuLitix. In what follows, I outline why I stepped away from my old company, how that experience informed the design and values of SimuLitix, and how I think the new company can productively work with the old company. My intent in writing this blog is to empower others to learn from my experience. It’s been quite a learning curve for me, especially useful in the way that it has evolved my own thinking regarding the intellectual commons – and I think others might stand to benefit from the thoughts and observations outlined herein.
SimuLitix is spun out of interactive Scientific (or “iSci”), a company I co-founded in 2013 (with artists Laura Kriefman & Phil Tew) as a vehicle for receiving a public grant from Arts Council England. That grant marked the start of a really exciting journey, enabling us to develop ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’ & ‘Hidden Fields’ into acclaimed sci-art projects that have now been experienced by over 200,000 people on three continents, featured at many of the world’s most prestigious cultural venues. Because our origins were artistic, it meant we weren’t restricted early on by demands to ‘focus’. We had the freedom to explore a range of domains – everything from art galleries to science museums to primary schools to secondary schools to corporate research labs to music festivals to classical music venues to rave nights, engaging with all sorts, from primary schoolchildren to community-oriented-education people to open-source-software-people to sophisticated-urban-art-people to strung-out-party-people to crazy-art-market people to ruthless-corporate-billionaire-people. This kind of versatility is fundamentally anti-disciplinary and community focused, both of which are important art responses to the kind of alienated hyper-specialization that capitalism, in its current neoliberal incarnation, tries to force on us.
Recently iSci has been looking to change its identity. Rather than hold fast to its roots as a sustainable arts-education collective, it’s started performing as a “profit-motivated business”. But in so doing, iSci is struggling with its karmic legacy as an arts project whose fundamental concern was never profit. Good arts projects engage in constant critique, always redefining what exactly they are trying to accomplish, always trying to navigate the values of a culture which is going increasingly mad, constantly reevaluating how their actions align with their values, and perpetually iterating on themselves in a kind of self reflexive feedback loop. The iSci DNA was not designed for profit accumulation or to maximize shareholder return; it was designed to sustain an imaginative arts collective.
And it’s really hard for an organization to escape its roots. Karma is real, and it carries. If you look at the people involved in getting iSci off the ground – people like Becca Rose, Lisa May Thomas, Laura Kriefman, Joseph Hyde, Lee Malcolm, Nathan Hughes, and many others – you quickly realize that all of these artists believe in the value of education, and that community sits at the heart of many of their respective practices. Because iSci was a successful arts collective, with content dreamed up by a team of artists and educators, it has a karmic legacy which is fundamentally that of an arts-education collective. As I’ve watched iSci auditioning for a role as “a profit-making business”, it has inevitably struggled to figure out what it is and what it thinks it’s trying to accomplish. It can’t shake the karma of the critical artistic feedback loop, owing to the fact that it was only ever intended to be a sustainable vehicle for bringing communities together by expressing creativity in the world, encouraging people to think together, and to think different.
It’s been fascinating to watch the current leadership at iSci experiment in forcing a profit-making “business narrative”. iSci’s allure and success arose from her spontaneity, unpredictability, creative flair, and anti-disciplinary manifesto. As the folks I left in charge perform what they imagine to be ‘serious business’, and attempt to discipline iSci to match the demands of neoliberal, for-profit capital, with their pages and pages and pages of business plans, profit charts, over-complicated legal-speak, intellectual property audits carried out by people who know little about the intellectual property, and brand-identity meetings involving ‘consultants’ who charge loads of money to carry out amateur profit-making-focused psychoanalysis. The leadership’s attempt to force iSci into such postures is slowly killing the very thing that people loved about her, and suffocating the very life-force that enabled her to flourish so well. She’s undergone a kind of ‘cultural gentrification’ before my very eyes. For example, I remember one particular public event where the iSci leadership announced their intent to profit in the educational space by focusing on “the rich schools”. (What the #!@?) When I queried further on this, I was told that this was “only the outward facing narrative”. I assume that this kind of narrative had arisen a consequence of the pressure to generate profit for shareholders, but it was something in which I no longer wanted any part.
I’d invested enormous amounts of time, energy, and emotion into iSci over the years, but it was time to stop. Over the last 4 years, I had observed iSci struggle to convert ample funding and publicity into a future facing narrative that I actually thought might be viable. This was partially a result of the fact that they lacked real identity, posing as a primary/secondary education company one moment and a research company the next, depending on whatever buzzwords they reckoned they could ride to secure the next bit of short-term funding. Eventually the iSci leadership took the decision to saddle the company with a pile of ‘director’s debt’, whose hazy terms (as far as I could tell) seemed designed to enforce servitude rather than encourage creativity.
I also became disillusioned with the attitudes and culture which I saw being espoused by the iSci leadership – a prevailing operational paradigm where everything is a pitch and that expertise does not matter. These kinds of attitudes are unfortunate consequences of the twitter-ified zeitgeist of our times. To make a real impact in areas like education and scientific research, having expertise and experience does matter, and it’s actually really important to engage with practitioners whose nuanced level of expertise enables them to speak with authority and insight. My perspective here was reinforced by interactions I had with senior colleagues at external educational and industrial organizations in winter 2018. On a number of occasions, they asked me, “does the leadership have any track record in the things they claim to do?” I had no answer. And it was clear that this was not good enough. Making a real impact needs a more solid foundation than hype and buzzwords.
By late spring 2018, I had a growing concern that my continued association with the iSci leadership might be impacting my own professional credibility. I no longer wanted to work with them, and I was sensing the same from others. During a series of meetings I held during summer 2018 with the iSci leadership (Philip Tew, Becky Sage, Rick Chapman), I outlined the problems I saw with iSci, and why I believed it needed reconfiguring to make a real impact. At the time, I held just under 47% of the company. I proposed a few different ways forward. For example, we could radically reconfigure the company to focus it in a nanotech research direction. This would require appointing new staff and leaders, who had a fresh vision, and a solid track record in the relevant areas. Another option was for iSci to keep its current staff and personnel, but change its status into something like a charitable incorporated organization (limited by guarantee rather than shares), removing the burden to generate return for shareholders and empowering us to consciously clarify a mission which was ethical and socially focused on the things we cared about. I was told by the leadership that either option was impossible, because “the creditors would never approve such a thing.” Apparently iSci’s debt came with constraints, and apparently those constraints required iSci to remain steadfast in an over-hyped identity crisis.
At that point I faced a dilemma: If what the leadership told me was actually true – i.e., that the creditors would not permit the company to creatively resolve their problems – then iSci was a sinking ship. If what the leadership told me was not actually true, then the ship was sinking for other reasons. My own passions lie in developing further the VR-enabled real-time simulation framework. This technology was primarily driven by my University of Bristol research lab, so it is stuff with which I am well familiar and excited about. The plan which I proposed to the iSci leadership is that I would step away from iSci to found a new entity called SimuLitix which would focus exclusively on my own areas of expertise in the nanotech research & engineering domain, with a business model grounded in building a stronger intellectual and cultural commons. I proposed that SimuLitix and iSci work together as sister companies, in a mutually beneficial arrangement where iSci held an equity stake in Simulitix. The idea here was to engineer a scenario whereby success for SimuLitix would benefit iSci, so that she could focus on her founding values in education, arts, science, and community, enabling her to experiment with new ways of carrying out interdisciplinary science education.
This plan felt to me like good progress. A number of my senior mentors said it was a good idea, senior colleagues at the University said it sounded sensible, and the iSci board also agreed it was a great idea. So I set to work getting it going. I resigned my board position, founded Simulitix, and agreed to exchange 22% of my iSci shareholding for rights to those software projects which I cared about and wanted to set free into the intellectual & cultural commons. But things very quickly got weird! For example, when iSci asked me to sign away my shares, I asked for a signed written agreement clarifying precisely what I would get (and when) in exchange. The iSci chairman phoned me up and explained for two hours how – despite the fact that iSci required my signature – they refused to sign anything in return, and that they expected me to “trust them”. He outlined at length how – if I did not “trust them” – the software being used by us in our university lab and our ongoing arts projects, would be confiscated, and our attempts to open source it shut down. Does that sound like a guy you want to trust? Or a company you want to do business with? Or an outfit where you want to invest time and money?
Anyhow, I resisted their threats, and they quickly agreed to sign an agreement as I requested, outlining what I would get (and when) in exchange for my shares. I’m still waiting on several things in that agreement, but I am proud to announce that there has been some progress – i.e., the same framework which we reported in our 2018 open-access Science Advances paper has now been set free into the commons, and given life as an open-source project. The iSci leadership’s apparent fear of the intellectual seems to derive mostly from the fact they have little subject-specific expertise in the domains they claim to serve. As a result, they default to keeping everything closed. As they chase investment, they regress more and more, suffocating the community vibe baked into their DNA. It’s tragic how this has arisen, because iSci got its start way back from generous amounts of public funding via Arts Council England, EPSRC, and InnovateUK! Moreover, this kind of attitude is completely at odds with the very real fact that pretty much everything which iSci has produced to date has value and impact only insofar as it finds life being used by a community.
SimuLitix is my second company. This time I am focusing intention so as to build something from the start which might mature into the kind of imaginative and values-focused organization that I would like to work at! To avoid identity crisis, the mission is simple and clear: to build tools for nanoscale design, engineering, and simulation using state-of-the-art computational technologies like virtual & augmented reality, hardware-adapted parallelism, high-bandwidth networks, and cloud-based supercomputing. Open innovation & community-values will form the bedrock of our ethos, taking inspiration from open-source companies like Mozilla. It’s something I’m really excited about, because a strong intellectual commons, along with community-driven free and open-source software, encapsulates the values, philosophy, and approach that has driven scientific enquiry for centuries. SimuLitix will initiate and maintain open-source projects under share-alike licenses, ensuring that their projects remain open to continuous peer review, their scientific foundations strong, and empowering communities to cooperatively learn from one another. And I hope that it can succeed, and benefit iSci along the way.
As a shareholder in iSci, I have an interest in seeing the educational tools which they’ve developed make an impact in rethinking education and hopefully forming part of a wider societal awakening. It’s extremely important to highlight the limitations of the dominant educational paradigm, which is unsustainably obsessed with disciplinarity, specialization, assessment, and rankings. These things are literally driving society mad, to the extent that we have arrived at a point in our societal evolution where we have simply decided to normalise unprecedented levels of mental illness, implicitly acknowledging it as the ‘the price we have to pay’ for how things are. To make any kind of meaningful progress, iSci must redefine for itself and for others the ways in which it characterises the value of what it is doing and what it has done to date. As iSci has unconsciously subjected itself to the dominant neoliberal narrative, its way of seeing the world has changed. Where it used to imagine how to empower participants to engage in community learning experiences, it now sees ‘consumers’ embedded in constellations of ‘products’. In this paradigm, ‘value’ is collapsed into some ludicrously oversimplified number called the ‘bottom line’, whose calculation tends to be completely untethered from any kind of holistic environmental thinking of the sort that we so desperately need right now.
This kind of thinking must stop. iSci will be unable to experimentally reconfigure educational thinking unless it simultaneously experiments with reconfiguring its own sense of value. We cannot innovate education in any kind of meaningful way while buying into conventional neoliberal profit narratives where learners are described as ‘consumers’, and education is a route to profit. Good education cannot be about profit; it needs to be about something else. Otherwise it is totally lame and boring, and not worth doing. The twisted neoliberal logic that has seeped into our thinking must be upended. To actually innovate models for education requires simultaneously innovating models for economic sustainability. Otherwise we end up with a sort of ‘cultural gentrification’ whereby neoliberal thinking feeds on creative and artistic energy, and sucks dry the very life-force which it wanted to colonize in the first place… which is a very sad state of affairs indeed.
Really excited to report that the open access Science Advances paper published by O’Connor et al. during the summer, entitled “Sampling molecular conformations and dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality framework” has since generated significant media exposure, having been picked up by a number of scientific media outlets. Nature, the New York Times, and the BBC’s “Science in Action” show (the VR piece begins 7 mins in) all contacted me in order to discuss the implications this work could have for nanotech research. It’s been exciting to witness the interest which the paper has generated. It certainly seems to be captivating people’s imaginations, and is attracting lots of attention by workers across academia & industry.
Working with academic colleagues from high-performance computing (HPC) and human-computer interaction (HCI), we recently published an open access paper entitled “Sampling molecular conformations and dynamics in a multiuser virtual reality framework” in the AAAS journal Science Advances. The paper described a scientifically rigorous, VR-enabled, multi-person, real-time interactive Molecular Dynamics (iMD) framework, , which lets researchers use virtual reality to literally reach out & touch real-time molecular physics using cloud-mounted supercomputing.
The paper presents the results of HCI experiments showing that VR (specifically the HTC Vive setup) enables users to carry out 3d molecular simulation tasks extremely efficiently compared to other platforms. Specifically, we asked users to perform three separate molecular manipulations, and timed how long each took on various platforms: in VR, on a touchscreen, and using a computer/mouse . The tasks included threading a molecule of methane through a simulated carbon nanotube; unwinding a left-handed helical molecule and rewinding it into a right-handed helix; and tying a knot in a simulated protein. The results showed that in VR, users were able to accomplish all of the tasks more quickly. The knot task, in particular, was completed nearly ten times as rapidly! By using 2D screen-based simulations of molecules, it seems pretty clear that we’re a lot less efficient than we could be.
In collaboration with Bristol-based tech startup Interactive Scientific, more than 37,000 people had the chance to experience the acclaimed real-time interactive molecular dynamics art installation ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’ (dS) at the ‘We the Curious’ science museum in central Bristol. dS – whose architecture is described in a 2014 Faraday Discussion paper – fuses rigorous methods from computational physics, GPU computing, and computer vision to interpret people as fields whose movement creates ripples and waves in an unseen field. The result is a gentle piece comprised of interactive graphics and soundscapes, both of which respond in real-time to people’s movements – enabling them to sculpt the invisible fields in which they are embedded. Offering a unique and subtle glimpse into the beauty of our everyday movements, dS allows us to imagine how we interact with the hidden energy matrix and atomic world which forms the fabric of nature, but is too small for our eyes to see. It’s as much a next-generation digital arts installation as it is an invitation to contemplate the interconnected dynamism of the natural world and processes of emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation – from the microscopic to the cosmic. The installation ran from October 2017 through January 2018, and was open to anybody; you can read more about it here.
Good news! I was recently informed that I’ve been selected as the recipient of the 10th “Silver Jubilee” award from the molecular graphics and modelling society (MGMS), which aims to recognize contributions to the field of molecular modelling and related areas. As part of this prize, I will be invited to give a series of prize lectures. Further details to follow.