GRSG Conference 2022: Orbit to Outcrop

Title: Virtual geological field trips: a new perspective on communicating geoscience localities

Author: Simon Buckley


Field trips are an important component of geology and geoscience training, in university courses and in industry, where the ability to see and touch exposed rock outcrops is a key part of learning about sedimentology, structural geology and more. In addition, fieldwork has traditionally been the primary means of enhancing our understanding of geology, through data acquisition at selected localities, which are then analysed back in the office. Over the last two decades, 3D modelling, and remote sensing methods have played an increasingly major role in field data acquisition and application analysis.

Photogrammetry, laser scanning and spectral imaging techniques are being routinely applied for accurate and high-resolution capture of field localities, with the resulting 3D models used as the spatial framework for quantitative analysis and integration of conventional field data. However, a further fundamental application of 3D models in geoscience is in knowledge dissemination – as the basis of college, university or industry education, as well as in communication of study outcomes to multiple target audiences. In this contribution, we present 3D virtual field trips (VFTs) as an umbrella term to represent the use of 3D models as the basis of conveying a geoscience narrative in education and outreach.

The process of building a VFT and delivering it to the target audience involves several key steps: 1) definition of purpose and audience, 2) creating a storyboard of localities and datasets required to deliver the VFT, 3) compilation of data sources in a single 3D environment, 4) developing the narrative around the 3D dataset in the form of views, animation paths and, optionally, text to allow the geoscience content to be conveyed, 5) delivery to participants in chosen form, such as a teacher-led course, self-run exploratory VFT, or a hybrid approach, 6) gather feedback and iterate on content, design and delivery.

A 3D VFT can integrate many different data sources from a range of disciplines and at multiple scales. Examples are 3D models of outcrops or hand samples, regional terrain models, maps and aerial/satellite imagery, conventional geological field data, such as logs, field photos, measurements and interpretations, geophysical sections and other subsurface datasets, documents, multimedia and more.

Although the VFT concept has been in use since the late 1990s, it has been gaining traction due to the ease of access to detailed spatial datasets. The global COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions saw rapid adoption of virtual methods by educational establishments and industry to keep in touch with the field. However, many of the experiences and learning outcomes will remain post-pandemic.

The ability to augment and integrate field localities with additional data, visit and revisit outside the temporal or geographic bounds of a physical field trip, and make field stops accessible to a wider range of the population ensures that VFTs keep a central place in geoscience as a complement to traditional fieldwork and excursions. To illustrate our contribution, we will showcase VFTs using 1) the V3Geo repository of 3D models as the basis for multiple localities, and 2) an example case study covering multiple 3D scales and multidisciplinary datasets.