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May 8, 2008 9:48 AM

Free video game from UW: Wiggling and shaking for science

Posted by Brier Dudley

A group at the University of Washington developed a clever new way to get the public's help with the massive computing challenge of researching cures for conditions such as HIV and Alzheimer's.

They created a free, downloadable video game called FoldIt! that "turns protein folding into a competitive sport."

I was skeptical, too, but after I downloaded it and played for awhile, it became addictive. The game draws out any latent obsessive-compulsive disorder you may have, encouraging you to wiggle, shake and pull 3D proteins to "fix" their shapes. A screen grab:


The time-sink is justified by knowing that your clicks are helping researchers who are trying to calculate all possible shapes for the more than 100,000 kinds of proteins in the human body.

The game is an evolution of Rosetta@home, a project that UW biochemistry professor David Baker started in 2005. It lets people around the world contribute unused computing cycles on their PCs to help calculate the different protein shapes. (Stanford has a similar, passive project called Folding@Home that works with PCs and Sony PlayStation 3 consoles).

"There are too many possibilities for the computer to go through every possible one," Baker said in the release. "An approach like Rosetta@home does well on small proteins, but as the protein gets bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder, and the computers often fail. ... People, using their intuition, might be able to home in on the right answer much more quickly."

FoldIt! was created by computer scientists Seth Cooper, a doctoral student, and postdoc researcher Adrien Treuille. They worked with Baker; associate professor of computer science, Zoran Popovic; and David Salesin, a professor of computer science and engineering.

They roped in professional game designers for advice and received funding from DARPA, Microsoft, Adobe and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and fellowships from Intel and Nvidia.

I think the team ought to mimic the "carbon credit" model and encourage people to play FoldIt! to offset the guilt and karmic imbalance they incur shooting people and aliens in mainstream video games.

Imagine how much protein-folding they'd get from players to atone for their sins playing just Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.