You’re flying over a hill of rock that’s as big as a whale’s back and just as gray and speckled. You touch your feet down onto the beast and peer at the scratch marks along its fault lines.
You’re not in a dream, but a game-based virtual field trip to the Whaleback anticline—an iconic exposure of folded rock in central Pennsylvania. Designed using a popular gaming engine, the virtual “field adventure” allows users to clamber, fly, and extract real-world data from the landscape around them.
“It’s very open-ended,” said University of Washington geologist Juliet G. Crider, one of the scientists behind the Whaleback experience. “Because you’re using tools and extracting actual data, you can do real analysis on the data that you’ve collected in the game.”
The Whaleback virtual experience and other games like it are changing the way researchers, students, and the public experience unique geologic sites.
Welcome to Whaleback
Whaleback is a popular destination for mid-Atlantic geologists. A former strip mine, the site features a spectacular sandstone anticline that rises out of the valley, nicknamed “Whaleback.” The sandstone layers, exposed after coal miners stripped away overlaying rock, crest upward into a ridge more than 10 meters (33 feet) tall. Unlike most anticlines seen in roadcuts, the entire fold is exposed at the surface in three dimensions.
In the virtual experience, as in reality, the Whaleback anticline sits nestled in a canyon surrounded by cliffs. A cloudless blue sky hangs overhead, and the treeless landscape (they’ve been digitally removed) makes for straightforward viewing.
Users can toggle keyboard commands to walk or fly across the terrain from a first-person view. With a virtual geodetic compass, they can measure the orientation of the fold’s layers, which correlate to real values at the site.
While exploring, the game allows students to learn about the size, shape, and orientation of the anticline, as well as draw a profile and produce a plot of the orientations of the fold’s key features.
Taking Field Trips Virtual
The Whaleback anticline virtual experience created by researchers at the University of Washington is just one of several initiatives that interweave gaming and geosciences. Leeds University’s bucolic landscapes immerse students in hours-long mapping exercises, and Imperial College London’s Virtual Sardinia sends students flying above a volcano via jet pack.
Virtual field experiences offer many benefits: Scientists can visit sites repeatedly, saving money and time; researchers and students with disabilities gain access to remote sites; and apprehensive students can learn the basics of fieldwork before entering the field.
Still, virtual field trips are relatively novel, and translating geologic data into a virtual game space has its technical challenges. To help, the designer of the Whaleback virtual experience, Mattathias Needle, has published a tool kit for others to design custom immersive virtual field trips just like Whaleback.
Needle, a doctoral student, was on his way to a party one Friday night in 2017 when he stopped by the University of Washington’s 3D printing lab.
“I went into Google Earth VR for 5 minutes, and my interest in going to the party just dissipated,” said Needle. He wondered how he could create something similar for Whaleback, the area he is researching for his geology doctorate.
He’d spend the next 2 years answering that question.
At the time, Needle and his adviser Crider were studying the geologic structures of Whaleback to reconstruct how the fold formed. Several years before, Crider’s previous doctoral student flew a drone around the site. The thousands of overlapping photos collected formed the basis of a 3D terrain model equipped with real coordinates and dimensions.
Needle and Crider do not consider themselves to be gamers, but the UW Reality Lab incubator connected them with computer science undergraduates. Together, they recreated Whaleback as a virtual space run on the open-source Unity game engine, which powers many popular games, including Pokémon Go. The Whaleback web browser–based game launched in 2021 and has racked up more than 1,900 plays.
“I am 100% a visual learner.…So what you are doing is right up my alley and genuinely allowed me to learn more about structural geology, on a conceptual level, than any of my other previous classes,” one student wrote in a classroom review to the designers after exploring the virtual site.
“It will be really interesting to see where the team takes the project,” said Earth scientist Clare Bond from the University of Aberdeen, who was not involved with the work but has written about the merits of virtual learning. “As more virtual field environments are developed and shared, the richer the resource for teaching and learning.”
Other virtual outcrops are available within 3D viewers, such as Sketchfab’s eRock from the University of Aberdeen, or within proprietary software such as the NORCE Norwegian Research Centre’s LIME. These virtual environments allow users to number locations, ask questions, view pop-up photos, and more, but they aren’t gaming based.
In the past, the lack of fieldwork opportunities has turned students with disabilities away from pursuing geoscience degrees. Students who cannot attend field trips may be given independent assignments that are less rigorous and stymie bonds with other students.
“The UW virtual field geology project is a great example of the future of field-based education,” said the University of Cincinnati’s geoscience education researcher Christopher Atchison, who was not involved with the effort.
“The integration of in-person, virtual, and hybrid pedagogical methods has the potential to reduce barriers of access and inclusion while increasing field safety and awareness,” Atchison added.
The Whaleback anticline virtual experience is now available in virtual reality, too. Unity supports multiple platforms and is easily adaptable, Needle said. He said he hopes others will create virtual field adventures, too. He published the workflow from Whaleback on GitHub and in the Journal of Structural Geology.
The possibilities are endless for other disciplines, Crider said. Archaeology, architecture, and planetary sciences could all create virtual experiences, she said.
David Kessler, the program manager of the University of Washington’s Reality Lab, said he thinks the applications can go even further. “If microscopic data sets are available,” Kessler said, “the team could adjust the tool kit to let users explore that terrain at different size scales—effectively shrinking themselves down like Ant-Man.”
—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer
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