March 15, 2007 - Hey, Alzheimer's, the gamers are coming for you.
Officals from Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. and Stanford University's Folding@home program met on the college campus and announced that the long-hyped PS3 program that will crunch data on disease is set to go live at the end of the month.
"It's really a perfect fit for us because it lets us apply our technological advancement to something that is so good and so important," said Richard Marks, senior researcher with Sony Computer Entertainment America. "One of the main reasons we're here today is just kind of a call to action to PlayStation 3 owners."
Curing diseases is as simple as a single button press.
Alzheimer's, cancer, Parkinson's and cystic fibrosis all involve proteins being folded wrong in some way or another. It's a complicated process that scientists are trying to understand in hopes of creating cures and preventative measures for these ailments.
"We want to understand what is going on at a microscopic scale," said Vijay Pande, associate professor of Chemistry at Stanford and the Folding@home project lead.
The problem is, creating simulations that mimic microscopic, misfolding proteins takes a while. A long while. Folding@home started "distributed computing," a program that sent packets of data to participating computers for computation, in October 2000, and it took two years to calculate the initial Alzheimer's information, Pande said.
Enter the PS3.
Using it's Cell Broadband Engine, Sony's pride and joy can run these simulations roughly 20 to 30 times faster than the standard PC. If the two million PS3 units in homes across the globe jump on the Folding@home train, researchers hope to accomplish what once took them years in a matter of months.
"That's a huge amount of computation power overall," Marks said.
Packaged with a system update expected to go live at the end of March, Folding@home will pop up on the XrossMediaBar and feature two ways for gamers to get their cure on - PS3 owners can either click on the Folding@home icon to enter the program or set the application up to run automatically anytime the PS3 enters idle mode from the XMB screen.
Whatever way you choose, the protein data is downloaded from Stanford, crunched on your unit and uploaded back to Stanford.
If you choose to click the icon yourself, you'll be treated with a model of a protein fold. The motley image of rods connected to red, blue and yellow balls vibrates and bounces in the center of the screen while the computer manipulates the data. If a quick image of the model grabs your attention, you can pause the image and rotate it while the actual processing continues on.
Although you probably won't spend hours staring at your flat-screen while Folding@home goes to work - even though you can change the HD visualization and zoom in and out - there are some nifty features the number cruncher comes equipped with. A user can personalize their machine's name, keep track of the number of protein folds the system has completed work on, check how far along the current fold is, see the latest project news and view a live map to see how many other PS3s are working on complex protein problems.
The PS3 puts the Cell to medical use.
Of course, it wouldn't be a video game without competition.
Users can create and join teams to track the total numbers of projects completed and see how they're fairing against users across the world. To create a team, users choose the option from the Folding@home screen and are redirected to the Stanford homepage through the PS3 Web browser. Once created, give your team number to friends and they join in a similar program-to-browser move. A list of teams will be available on the Stanford Web site, but there is no way to keep riff-raff researchers from joining your team.
"There's a lot here for users to do if they choose, but as I mentioned before, all they have to do is click on it and it's helping," Marks said.
The voluntary program is free but needs to run on its own - i.e. no background experiments.
"I think that we'll probably never do" downloads "while you're playing a game," Marks said. "When we're running this, we want all out computation involved with this."
Thanks to IGN.com for sharing the news with us!