Exploring human-guided strategies for reaction network exploration: Interactive molecular dynamics in virtual reality as a tool for citizen scientists

The emerging fields of citizen science and gamification reformulate scientific problems as games or puzzles to be solved. Through engaging the wider non-scientific community, significant breakthroughs may be made by analyzing citizen-gathered data. In parallel, recent advances in virtual reality (VR) technology are increasingly being used within a scientific context and the burgeoning field of interactive molecular dynamics in VR (iMD-VR) allows users to interact with dynamical chemistry simulations in real time. Here, we demonstrate the utility of iMD-VR as a medium for gamification of chemistry research tasks. An iMD-VR “game” was designed to encourage users to explore the reactivity of a particular chemical system, and a cohort of 18 participants was recruited to playtest this game as part of a user study. The reaction game encouraged users to experiment with making chemical reactions between a propyne molecule and an OH radical, and “molecular snapshots” from each game session were then compiled and used to map out reaction pathways. The reaction network generated by users was compared to existing literature networks demonstrating that users in VR capture almost all the important reaction pathways. Further comparisons between humans and an algorithmic method for guiding molecular dynamics show that through using citizen science to explore these kinds of chemical problems, new approaches and strategies start to emerge.

keywords: virtual reality, Reaction network, Molecular dynamics,