Tech

Augmented reality could be the geology classrooms killer app

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Enlarge / Fancy a tabletop Meteor Crater, anyone?Scott K. Johnson

One of the most important challenges in teaching geology is bringing the outside world into the classroom. During a pandemic, obviously, an inability to safely bring students into the classroom doesnt make that any easier. Fortunately, digital tools can provide new ways to access the world beyond whichever room you find yourself in.

Geology is a very spatial science and can require a lot of 3-D visualization. Simple physical models (not to mention rocks) have long been used to aid teaching about things like faults or crystalline mineral structure. But these things can be surprisingly costly and occupy a surprising amount of storage space. This is an obvious place where technology can come in, serving up an endless variety of objects, simulations, and real-world data—if theres an easy way for students to access it.

Augmented reality (AR) visualizations are increasingly capable of delivering on that promise. Ars talked to Martin Pratt about his work as part of a Washington University in St. Louis group that is developing apps for classes, both for specialized devices like Microsofts HoloLens and for the phones most students already have.

“You want to represent that data, not in a projective way like you would do on a screen on a textbook, but actually in a three-dimensional way,” Pratt said. “So you can actually look around it [and] manipulate it exactly how you would do in real life. The thing with augmented reality that we found most attractive [compared to virtual reality] is that it provides a much more intuitive teacher-student setting. You're not hidden behind avatars. You can use body-language cues [like] eye contact to direct people to where you want to go.”

While completing a Ph.D. in seismology a few years ago, Pratt had taken an interest in data visualization along the way. He took on the challenge to work on creating AR apps, starting with one (iOS only) that allows users to explore up-to-date USGS earthquake data in three dimensions rather than just a 2-D map. You can much more easily understand the geometry of a tectonic plate boundary this way, or even explore the pattern of foreshocks and aftershocks around an earthquake.

Looking back on #Ridgecrest EQ sequence in #AR using SeismicityAR where over the last year theres been ~6000 M2+ events. Get a full 360-view of the #3D fault surfaces #virtualplanet pic.twitter.com/NkVlX0mMCX

— Martin Pratt (@sympathy4data) July 13, 2020

Working with the Unity game engine, Pratt has since put together a flexible app called GeoXplorer (for iOS and Android) for displaying other models. There is already a large collection of crystalline structure models for different minerals, allowing you to see how all the atoms are arranged. There are also a number of different types of rocks, so you can see what those minerals look like in the macro world. Stepping up again in scale, there are entire rock outcrops, allowing for a genuine geology field-trip experience in your living room. Even bigger, there are terrain maps for landscapes on Earth, as well as on the Moon and Mars.

And its not just geology. Due to interest from people in other fields, Pratt has found existing datasets to plumb, like models of proteins, art, and archeology.

  • Here's a screenshot using the GeoXplorer app, with gorgeous blades of the mineral gypsum.
  • An outcrop of volcanic rhyolite from Missouri (except I'm not in Missouri).
  • Cubic crystals of the lead-sulfide mineral galena.
  • Poke your nose into the crystalline structure of the mineral actinolite.
  • Have a look at terrain from Mars' Gale Crater.
  • Ever wondered what Devil's Tower would look like in your garden? AR sure beats building one inside your house.
  • A sample of the mineral diopside.
  • An outcrop of folded (bent) rock layers in South Wales.
  • Rocks not your speed? Try some organic chemistry, like this complex of biomolecules.

For now, this is a solo experience, but Pratt is working on building shared spaces into Read More – Source