Visualizing and interacting with genomic data in virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) – a technology that simulates a user’s physical presence in a virtual world – can convey an unprecedented depth of detail and provide a highly interactive environment to users. However, there currently exist few tools to visualize patient genomic data in this three-dimensional (3D) space. Consequently, the main focus of this research was to apply the advantages provided by VR to genomics data visualization.
We developed a program to view and interact with genomic data on the Oculus Rift VR console. First, genomic data is pulled from a local database and parsed into a format accessible within Unity, the 3D engine used to build our program. Next, important features of the data are extracted and sent to a rendering algorithm in order to project the data in 3D space. A Leap Motion hand sensor, coupled with custom hand gestures that have been integrated into the code, enables users to navigate around the model intuitively. A fundamental component of this tool is the ability to interact with information – every point of data in our model, including translocations, single nucleotide variants, and copy number variations, can be selected to pull up additional information from local and external sources, tailored to the specific selection. This innovation significantly elevates the functionality of our model compared to that of other static, two-dimensional models by providing users a seamless way to obtain additional context about data without sacrificing functional screen space. Due to the scarcity of supporting software libraries available for this platform, nearly all the functionality of this program was developed independently; moreover, through the course of this project, several standalone Unity C# libraries were created, providing resources for other developers to use and build upon in the future.
All in all, our completed model leverages the advantages of virtual reality in order to accurately and intuitively convey data. Not only does the 360-degree field of view, along with interactive data points, increase the amount of information that can be displayed, the head and hand gestures used to manipulate our model provide users with a more natural and functional means of visualizing genomic data.