I Just Held an Equation in My Hands

Kieta Funakawa ’16 and Steve McCloskey ’15 founded the company Nanome Inc. to aid visualization and collaboration at the nanoscale. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

I’d been hearing a lot about an entrepreneur team in The Basement, UC San Diego’s latest innovation space and business incubator. Apparently these two young guys had started a company that was using virtual reality (VR) to illustrate nanoscale materials, things like chemical compounds, biological diseases, the kind of things that until now could only be visualized through a microscope or computer program.

I’ll admit, talk of virtual reality alone wasn’t enough to get my jets firing. Haven’t we heard for decades that VR is poised to change our lives? Yet so far the cutting edge of that change seems to be better graphics for the gamers of the world. What can I say? I passed.

Until I heard this: “They’re using it now to create models of mathematic equations.” Now that seemed cutting edge, the kind of whimsical and futuristic thing I figured we’d be doing by the year 2016. It brought to mind one of my favorite Disney shorts, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land, an overlooked classic in which that cantankerous waterfowl finds himself in an abstract world where living triangles poke at his feathered behind. In short, it sounded like something to experience.

The Basement is a lofty room abuzz with a very distinct yet subtle hum, the sound of smart young brains churning in front of computer screens, with hushed conversation here and there from the several teams at work in all corners. This hum was cut through by the voice of Kieta Funakawa ’16, a lively, gregarious voice that seemed somehow out of place among all this focus.

And then I learn why—the guy’s an artist. He and Nanome Inc. co-founder Steve McCloskey ’15 actually met at UC San Diego’s Filmatic Festival, an annual event devoted to the future of filmgoing, where McCloskey was demonstrating an early-stage prototype of a virtual lab that he built with his nanoengineering classmates.

McCloskey had built the program out of dissatisfaction with the current tools available for complex 3-D modeling, simulation and visualization at the nanoscale. Funakawa, with a passion for film, was likewise frustrated by limitations—“I knew my artistic expression was limited by the tools that are available, so I wanted to go to school for computer science and create my own version of Photoshop that would meet my needs.”

Overcoming this mutual frustration has since made Nanome an entrepreneurial golden child, sending them on the Grand Tour of campus incubator programs like the Jacobs School of Engineering’s von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center, the Calit2 Innovation Space and the Pepper House Incubator. In 2016 they won UC San Diego’s Entrepreneur Challenge, and were also the standout at The Basement’s very own Triton Entrepreneur Night.

So it would seem that Nanome is as applauded as they are nomadic. Their temporary lab space in The Basement was a simple arrangement of desks and benches surrounding a taped-off square of emptiness—until you strap on the Oculus Rift headset, in which it becomes a darkened ring where all the virtual action happens.

I was met first with a few models of molecules—the team’s Nano-One program, which creates virtual versions of the classic ball-and-stick atomic models that I can only vaguely remember from high school. Yet where an amateur like me could put those together like Tinkertoys in ways that grossly defy laws of physics, these virtual atoms actually act like the physical materials they represent; as I tossed them together, they automatically combined according to the rules they would follow naturally.

Yet my white whale was waiting, a product the Nanome team calls Calcflow, an immersive 3-D graphing calculator made for students to learn the foundations of vector calculus. Or in my case, the ticket to Mathmagic Land.

And truly, the experience was not so far off from Mr. Duck’s—my hands were floating ghostly white in a dark world, able to stretch, bend, spin and otherwise manipulate these complex objects before me, the most striking of which by far was a vectorized corkscrew so beautiful and complex the mathematics behind it would no doubt have filled an entire blackboard.

“You can manipulate vectors with your hands, and explore vector addition and cross product,” said Funakawa from somewhere in the periphery. “You can see and feel a double integral of a sinusoidal graph in 3-D, a mobius strip and its normal and spherical coordinates. Even create your own parametrized function and vector field!”

Of course all this was lost on me, but it was heartening to experience what a couple students made from scratch simply because they thought it should exist. Their restlessness and innovation are something to be proud of, as proud as they obviously are when you peel off your headset and see them both there smiling at you, as excited as you are about what you just experienced, and happy to see another mind blown.