VR Meets Nanotech to Make `80s Cyberpunk Dreams Come True

Nanotechnology and virtual reality were two of the most overhyped technologies of the 1980s and `90s. But neither really lived up to our expectations. Thanks to new headsets like the Oculus Rift, however, virtual reality is finally becoming an actual reality. And now a startup is trying to use VR to make the nanotech fantasies of `80s cyberpunks come true.

The difference with the VR is it puts you inside the failure. You see something that's not just a collection of rainbow colors---it tells you a little bit more on what is really going on. Joe Walker, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies

Nanotronics Imaging, an Ohio-based company backed by PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, makes atomic-scale microscopes that both researchers and industrial manufacturers can use in the production of nanoscale materials. Today at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards the company announced a new endeavor: the ability to view the microscopes’ output using virtual reality headsets like the Rift.

The new product, nVisible, will enable Nanotronics users to do virtual walk-throughs of nano-structures, which the company says will enable them to better visualize and understand the materials they’re working with. But most importantly, it could help manufacturers create more reliable processes for building nanoscale products—which has historically been a huge hurdle in working with such incredibly small materials.

Another look at the same micro-topography of a rubber sample as above, also at 20x magnification. Nanotronics Imaging

Inside the Failure

Nanotronics co-founder and CEO Matthew Putman says the idea of using virtual reality to visualize nanoscale materials was first proposed by the company’s creative director, Mari Kussman. Putman admits that at first he thought virtual reality visualizations would just be a novelty. “Until I saw it myself I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says.

It turns out VR is helpful because although some nano-scale materials are essentially flat — such as semiconductors — many others aren’t. And in those cases, even 3-D images on a traditional flat screen can be cumbersome, says Joe Walker, global director of advanced materials development at Freudenberg Sealing Technologies.

Walker and his team are in charge of developing new materials that help keep everything from industrial valves to automobile crankshafts from leaking. When test parts leak, his team must determine whether that’s because the material has cracked or if there’s a leak between the material and the surface. Walker plans to use Nanotronics microscopes to automate part of the company’s testing process, and he believes the nVisible visualizations will help his team troubleshoot production problems more quickly.

“The difference with the VR is it puts you inside the failure,” he says. “You see something that’s not just a collection of rainbow colors—it tells you a little bit more on what is really going on.”

Way Up Close

Putman co-founded Nanotronics with his father, John Putman, in 2010. Before that he was an executive at an industrial systems software company called Tech Pro, a company founded by his father, and a professor of materials science at Columbia University. He knew nanoscale engineering was useful in a whole range of fields, including the creation of small medical devices, better photovoltaics, and flexible electronics. But the promise of nanotechnology simply wasn’t being fulfilled.

“I would go to the biology department, the chemistry department, and every one had the same problem,” he says. “You couldn’t put these things into industry because there was no type of process control that could be used for that.”

He came up with the idea to combine cutting-edge machine vision technology—such as the deep learning algorithms that are helping Facebook and Google recognize images with remarkable accuracy—with nanoscale microscopy. The result is a line of nano-microscopes that can be used to not only see very tiny objects, but to automate industrial testing processes that rely on such up-close visibility.

Putman hopes these new microscopes could help scientists will spawn a whole new generation of nanotechnology startups. “I have this idea that the next Facebook could be a materials science innovation,” he says.

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