UCL students explore ancient rocks in virtual reality

UCL Earth Sciences students, unable to take part in their normal field-based classes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are instead using virtual reality headsets to learn about Britain’s oldest rocks from northwest Scotland.

This "virtual field trip" is one of eight produced by the Earth Sciences department this year, and comprises dozens of videos from different locations as well as drone footage, 3D images and terrain models. The students can "virtually" move across the area, making observations and gathering critical data as they go.

A team of academics, led by Professor Tom Mitchell (UCL Earth Sciences), worked through September 2020 to recreate the traditional field trip experience, recording 40 videos from different locations along the route, creating 3D images of 80 different rock specimens, and filming 3D footage from a drone flying high above the coastline.

They developed a multimedia website that enables students to tour the region using drone footage as well as Google Earth and Google Street View. Students can zoom into different areas along the coast to

Students are also supplied with low-cost virtual reality goggles that can be fitted to a smartphone, allowing them to explore the region’s landscape and rocks in virtual reality from home.

Earth Sciences BSc student Mansi Baguant said it was "thrilling" to see Scotland in such a different way and that "mapping from the comfort of your own home is actually a lot of fun".

Another student on the course, Gillian Cheong, said that, if used for shorter periods of time, the VR glasses provided a goodáalternative to a field trip. "The effort that the UCL Earth Sciences staff have taken to make this VR mapping project is evident in the consistently amazing quality and immersive experience."

Professor Mitchell (UCL Earth Sciences) said: "Although the hands-on nature of in-person geological mapping fieldwork can never be fully replaced, this virtual field trip comes close to replicating the experience (minus the driving wind and rain!), providing valuable opportunities to learn and develop critical field skills, and, in addition, introducing complementary digital remote sensing techniques that are becoming widely used across the Earth sciences."

BSc student Joseph Paine said: "Geology is a very hands-on degree, and some of the best learning happens out in the field. In the time they had, the department have created loads of great online resources in order to fill this gap. They’ve kept these solutions interesting and fun for students - proving to not just be a simple substitute for the real thing, but to actually be something entirely new and of its own.

"The photo I sent sums it up really - using a VR viewer surrounded by rocks. As geologists we thrive off going outdoors and getting to grips with what we find, but this being stripped from us, we come up with alternative solutions (that work).

"Of course, the rocks haven’t disappeared (that takes millions of years), and so even though we’re looking at them through VR viewers, they’re also right in front of us/beneath our feet - which sums up the situation we’re in," said Joseph. "The rocks will still be there when Covidáis over."