Rock Formations at the Tips of Students’ Fingers

Geologic Explorations Use iPads in the Field to Create Interactive 3-D Images

Nov. 15, 2010

A team of students traversed an outcropping of rock formations just north of the UT Dallas campus, armed with little more than handheld electronic equipment.

And while this may not seem unusual, such an expedition once required $5,000 field computers and thousands of dollars in software. But these students studied the geologic outcroppings and accompanying photos on an inexpensive iPad.

UT Dallas is among a wave of universities and colleges to introduce iPads as learning tools in the classroom, but it is the first in the country to use them in conjunction with 3-D models of geologic formations using software invented here.

“Our team has created a library of these three-dimensional models using photographs of geologic features from around the world,” said Dr. Carlos Aiken, professor of geosciences in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “By uploading our images onto the iPads, students can make notations in the field and email them for immediate integration onto the 3-D model.

The researchers used ground-based laser imaging, still photography, and satellite positioning to precisely capture the shapes and surfaces  of geologic formations, resulting in 3-D, photorealistic  models  accurate up to a millimeter.

The photos of the rock formations are loaded onto the iPads and students can then take them into the field and interpret what they’re seeing using their fingers to draw on the screen. The photos are emailed back to the lab or the classroom and rendered in three dimensions complete with their annotations. The original photos have already been rendered on the terrain models. 

“It allows the student to note what they’re seeing and then email it and review it with a professor or colleague instantly,” Aiken said. “The professor can oversee students’ progress and email it back to the student while they’re still in the field.”

This process eliminates all of the complexities of bringing in expensive field computers with complex software. Although the images are in two dimensions on the iPads, students’ notations can be emailed and layered onto the 3-D model back at the lab.

“We needed an easy and inexpensive way for students and teachers to interact with the three-dimensional library of models,” Aiken said.

To facilitate this, UT Dallas researchers have created 3-D models of geologic formations from around the world. Locations include Saudi Arabia, the Pyrenees in Spain, Somerset County in the United Kingdom, and southwestern Ireland.

But even closer to home, researchers have mapped formations from around the Metroplex with a goal of providing inexpensive and accessible ways for area universities and community college students to interact with local geology (3-Dimensional Geologic Interactive Information for Visualization in Education, or GIIVE).

“Field trips cost money, so our idea was to create a library of local 3-D models from around the Metroplex that we can provide free to local universities and community colleges,” Aiken said. 

The team plans to expand the library by adding more models. The high-resolution images of rocks and formations may help oil companies and scientists characterize oil reservoirs.

The 3-D modeling project was partially sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Consortium for Multiscale Intelligent Integrated Interactive Sensing (MINTS), Saudi Aramco and the Department of Geosciences.

Aiken collaborated on the project with graduate students Iris Rodriguez, Brian Burnham,  Graham Mills, Miao Wang and Martin Orlob; and undergraduates Ranyah Kharwat and Deanna Marine. Other investigators include Dr. Georgia Fotopoulos, associate professor of geosciences; Dr. Alexander Braun, associate professor of geosciences; Dr. John Oldow, professor and head of the Geosciences Department; and Chander Ahuja of the Texas Institute.

Media Contact: Katherine Morales, 972-883-4321, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, 972-883-2155, [email protected]
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Geosciences Class

UT Dallas is the nation's first university to use iPads in conjunction with 3-D models of geologic formations using software invented here.

Geosciences Class

The team plans to expand the library by adding more geologic models.

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December 12, 2019