Could an Xbox One ever find its way into a laboratory? Some thoughts on unexpected tech in chemistry.
As well as regular desktop and notebook computers there are other platforms which could be put to great use within
chemistry! Embracing these platforms would not only make use of new technology but also offer new
possibilities and abilities in research.
Smartphones & Tablets
Recent years have seen a boom in smartphone and tablet sales. A wide variety of applications are
being developed for their platforms including iOS, Android, Windows Phone and more recentlty
Windows 8 and RT. There is a continually growing number of chemistry apps ranging from interactive
Periodic Tables and flashcard references to molecular drawing and visualisation tools. Some apps are
even designed for use within a laboratory including calculators for specific experimental techniques or
databases of chemical data! Other tools can help with managing scientific journal articles for use when
researching and writing up.
The potential for these devices is huge - equipment manufacturers could offer apps to monitor a device or process
and/or control it via a touch interface or remotely. Settings and acquried data can be synced to the cloud for
backup and analysis at a later date. For learning, educational tools could be greatly enhacned to take advantage
of the faster processors, touch and motion via accelerometers and gyroscopes therefore providing a more interactive
and immersive experience. And for both fields, the social aspect at the touch of a button could improve
collaboration and knowledge sharing to well-beyond an indivudal lab-based research group!
Games consoles may seem an unconventional choice for use within chemistry. However, the recent
innovations with the Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move where the user physically
interacts by moving limbs (or their entire bodies) could be used in research as well as scientific
games. Imagine a research group meeting where the group is discussing a large molecule they are
investigating. With an Xbox Kinect and some 3-dimensional molecular viewing software on the console
all members of the group could take part in the discussion without standing up or requesting control!
Additionally, for those who have difficulty with laboratory work, such as wheelchair users, the
motion controllers could be a way into it. For example, a Kinect could be used to remotely control
robotic arms to perform the necessary actions to the equipment. It may even be possible for the IR
cameras and detectors on the Kinect and other controllers to monitor the temperature of reactions!
For computationally expensive tasks, such as quantum modelling or processing large datasets, games
consoles could come up trumps over conventional computers. Modern games have very realistic graphics
all of which have to be processed prior to being shown on the screen to the gamer. This is is not done
by the Central Processing Unit (CPU) but the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). As the name suggests the
GPU is optimised for graphics processing and as most graphics are now realistic, that is a lot of
processing power! It is a hot area for development at the moment and a lot of work is being carried
out. So far huge speed increases for demanding computational tasks has been shown!
Embedded Systems: The Raspberry Pi at all that!
The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer developed in the UK. It is powered by an ARM-based
processor (another British invention) and uses SD cards for data storage. The SD card also contains the
operating system requried to run software on the Pi. Therefore different ones can be used very easily. Although
there are similarities to mobile devices these systems are completely customisable. The only restrictions on
software are those imposed by the platform, which are very few! Hardware integration can also be easily added
via on-board GPIO pins (General Purpose Input-Output). There are many other mini computers and embedded boards
available in addition to the Pi all of which could be applied for use in chemistry.
One major use would be in reaction monitoring. As the Pi has a low-power usage it can run for extended periods.
With hardware via GPIO, sensors could be built to monitor different reaction parameters such as temperature,
humidity, mass and more. With the correct electronics almost anything is possible! Unlike regular computers, the
Pi and other mini computers are small and cost very little in comparison therefore take up little space and if set
up correctly need little maintenance while operational.