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Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom

A Washington University team is showing how you can explore objects on a molecular level and travel to other planets.

Does anyone remember the cartoon series the Magic School Bus? Ok, maybe we're getting old.

The series saw a chirpy teacher take her students on incredible school trips using that titular magic bus, which could shrink to explore the human body on a molecular scale or use rocket boosters to travel the solar system.

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While geology students aren't about to be shrunk down to the size of a molecule in order to explore rock formations, augmented reality (AR) is allowing them to do the next best thing.

A group at Washington University in St. Louis, led by Martin Pratt, is developing some very interesting apps that tap into that immense potential.

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
The GeoXplorer UI, Source: Washington University in St. Louis

The team has been working on apps such as the already-released GeoXplorer (for iOS and Android). Developed using the Unity game engine, the app allows users to visualize the way atoms are arranged in a large selection of crystalline structure models for different minerals. There are also many different rock types, and even entire rock outcrops, that can all be visualized in 3-D. 

The group is developing its apps both for smartphone devices and for AR headsets, such as Microsoft's HoloLens.

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
Source: Washington University in St. Louis

"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 explained in an interview with Ars Technica.

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
Martin and Professor Skemer explore the Stackpole syncline in Southwest Wales, Source: Washington University in St. Louis

"So you can actually look around it [and] manipulate it exactly how you would do in real life," he continued. "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."

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
Source: Washington University in St. Louis

The scope of AR is only limited by the devices we use, so that means in the future that we will be able to bring Mars to the classroom — NASA's Mars rover teams are already working on 3D visualization using the technology and Martin's team has already worked on a basic visualization of the Red Planet.

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
Exploring Mars with augmented reality, Source: Washington University in St. Louis

“[AR] will hopefully sort of trickle down in a few years' time to grad students and undergrads saying, ‘Oh, I don’t have to just use a laptop anymore. I can actually show this three-dimensional data that I’m trying to study and understand in a different way with a device that I have sat right here anyway,’” Pratt explains.

Professionals from other fields have also come to Pratt with requests for visualizations for the likes of models of proteins, archeological models, and works of art. Of course, Pratt isn't the first to use AR to help visualize scientific models.

Augmented Reality Will Revolutionize the Geology Classroom
Photogrammetry of the 11,500-year-old skull of Luzia WomanSource: Cicero Moraes/Wikimedia Commons

As an example, photogrammetry, used in conjunction with AR, has allowed archaeologists worldwide to get up close and personal to the incredibly delicate 11,500-year-old remains of the Luzia Woman, pictured above.

As Geology is such a spatial science, it makes sense that AR will play a key role in teaching the geologists of the future and that much of the technology's bandwidth will be used for rendering geological landscapes. It's exciting to imagine the ways this will accelerate the development of AR and VR for other industries and for our homes.

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