Communication and Collaboration during the Pandemic Lockdown:

Virtual Reality as a Way Forward … Now and in the Future

Patrice F. Rey, ARCITRH Basin Genesis Hub and ARC Linkage Proterozoic Basins, Earthbyte Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney
Friday 10th April, 2020

Covid-19 pandemic has put in very sharp focus the need to rethink our communication, collaboration and training strategies. While the world has jumped on Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts, we can also explore more innovative and transformative solutions to carry-on with our activities while in lockdown.

Virtual Reality is by no means a new technology. However, over the past five years big companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Sony, HTC and Samsung have invested billions of dollars to improve the technology and make it available to the masses at a cost lower than your average smartphone. The technology is mature enough to replace face-to-face meeting, to enable immersive collaboration, and to get rid of expensive long distance travels for short meetings.

Over the past few months, I have experimented and tested a number of VR platforms for meeting and collaboration, as well as tested a couple of popular VR headsets.

VR Headsets – Just in case someone would not know where to put it, VR headsets are called Head Mounted Device (HMD). They cost between AU$400 and AU$1,000, and they exist either as standalone Wi-Fi units which incorporate a GPU chipset, a few wide-angle cameras that spatially track Quest the headset, and ram memory to store apps; or as PC-based devices that need external tracking sensors cabled to a base station linked to the headset. The headset is itself hooked via a USB3.0 cable to a Windows machine equipped with a robust graphic card.

The best VR headsets at the moment are the Oculus Quest (standalone) and the HTC Vive Pro (needs a PC). They have similar price range AU$650 to A$850 for the Quest, and $800 to $1,000 for the Vive. The Vive requires the setup of i/ two tracking laser emitter sensors at opposite end of a room, each sensors demanding a power outlet, and ii/ a base station to communicate the sensors data to the headset both also requiring a power outlet. Including the PC, one needs no less than 5 power outlets per headset. In contrast, the Oculus Quest doesn’t require any power outlet excepted when charging.

Having tested both headsets, the Oculus Quest has my vote. Although the Vive has slithgly better refresh rate (90 Hz vs 72 Hz) and field of view (110º vs 100º), the Quest is much less cumbersome to install and to use compared to the Vive. Besides, the Oculus Quest has also the option to be connected to a PC via a USB3.0 cable, hence giving the Quest access to popular browsers for VR apps (e.g. SteamVR, Oculus, Sidequest). One of my main concerns with Oculus is that it is owned by Facebook...

In the next 12 months, these headsets will be able to deliver 4K to 8K resolutions and wider field of view (at the moment the standard is 100-110º). If having a Facebook device in your office or your lounge room makes you nervous, PICO Neo 4K and PIXMA 5K (200º field of view) are headsets worth keeping on your radar. And for Mac enthusiasts, Apple is expected to release its VR Headset in 2021.

PC for Virtual Reality – Virtual Reality has been largely funded by the gaming Industry to produce and sell multi-player war games and racing games where things move furiously fast. Hence, gaming PCs demand access to powerful graphic cards with GPU chipsets, Orion for fast monitor refresh rates, and to synchronise instantaneously VR worlds to multiple players.

In the context of collaborative research and teaching, I doubt we need a top of the range graphic card. However, having tried table tennis in VR, I am happy with the NVIDIA GeForce RTX2060 that came with my ACER Predator Orion 3000. This medium size gaming desktop cost less than AU$2,500 and is powered by an Intel i7-8700 hexacore CPU. If you prefer a more mobile solution, Acer is also selling a gaming laptop the Predator Triton 500 from about AU$3,500, which delivers the necessary power for your favourite VR headset.

In the near future, VR PC will probably disappear as they will be replaced by cloud computing. For those living in Europe or the US, Shadow (https://shadow.tech/int/) provides access to cloud-based high-performance VR computing on a subscription basis for $20 to $40 per month. No need to buy and maintain hardware, however access to 5G, NBN or fibre Internet is an imperative. This may be an ideal solution for Schools, Universities and businesses.


VR Platforms – There are many commercial solutions for VR meetings and VR conferences for business. I have tested a few, free or affordable, solutions including Altspace (owned by Microsoft), ImmersedVR and NEOS VR. Together, these three platforms offer all what is needed to support effective teaching, training and research collaboration.

Altspace (altvr.com) – Altspace is free and any registered users can organise public or private meetings and run seminars including up to 70 participants. Creating meeting rooms and setting up class meetings is relatively easy. Because Altspace offers a familiar classroom experience, it has become the default platform for people in primary and secondary education. Recently, I have attended a conference, asked questions and interacted with participants the same say I would have in a normal conference (… minus the drinks).

ImmersedVR (immersedvr.com) – When compared to Altspace, the big advantage of ImmersedVR is that it allows users to share their computer monitors (Mac, PC or Linux) and to use them in VR in the same way that would sitting in their office. The pricing structure includes a free option that allows users to meet in public spaces, connect two physical monitors and use a whiteboard. A monthly subscription of US$15 will allow you to collaborate with 4 users in a private co-working space where you will be able to connect two computers, broadcast up to 5 computer virtual monitors, and use a whiteboard. There is also a US$30 per month subscription allowing up to 15 co-workers to join a private office, and access to a Web Mode for teammates who don’t have access to a VR headset.

NEOS VR (neosvr.com) – There is more than one way to explain what NEOS VR is. It is at once an operating system enabling users to interact with digital data in an immersive computer; a Integrated Development Environment for the creation of interactive virtual worlds (i.e. a metaverse) including collaborative, educational and training environments; a parallel world with its own crypto-currency, the value of which is indexed on the size of its community and economic activity. Access to NEOS VR is free, but for US$12 per month users have access to 50 Gb of storage space, a faster server and more importantly (and perhaps not for too long) users are invited to a weekly meeting with NEOS’ development team. NEOS is supported by a very active group of volunteer developers and users that have produced a broad range of assets, as well as tutorials all available in YouTube. NEOS supports a very broad range of 3D CAD formats, and I have imported 3D models from Underworld and Badlands without any difficulty, as well as my entire collection of 3D models designed in Sketchup (available here >> Sketchup 3D models), and 3D outputs from Paraview. Sharing computer monitors is not available yet but under development. As a beginner, I was able to design and build a meeting room in a couple of evenings. This room includes a fully functional whiteboard, and users can easily import posters, pictures (PNG, JPEG, etc), videos and 3D CAD models.

What’s next? Within the context of international research groups involving university and industry partners located in different states or countries, frictionless communication is challenging, yet it is the key to keep everyone engaged, motivated and focussed on delivering useful and timely outcomes. The covid-19 pandemy is forcing us to reconsider the way we communicate and colloborate. VR makes possible setting-up meetings on short notice, involving participants physically located anywhere in the world. For once, it should be easy to convince our resource managers to invest in a new technology. Virtual reality offers immediate and significant savings by removing altogether the need to travel long distances to attend short meetings.



School of Geosciences' Virtual Campus at The University of Sydney

Patrice F. Rey Basin Genesis Hub, Earthbyte Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney

Campus The virtual world shown in the movie below is being built in NEOS VR. It is made of a collection of 3D assets, some I created many years ago in Sketchup, others bought on various market places (cgtrader, Sketchfab etc), and others build and programmed directly in NEOS. Most 3D rock samples and 3D outcrops comes from various authors and were downloaded from Sketchfab.com. The Bingie-Bingie outcrop (South Coast, NSW) is from Stephan Volger; the Cape Liptrap outcrop (Victoria) is from AusGeol.org; and the sandstone cliff from Moab (Utah) is from Robert Mahon. The images of thin-sections were downloaded from https://www.virtualmicroscope.org; the X-Ray tomography was made available by my colleague Vasilis Chatzaras (Chatzaras et al, JGR 2016); and the seismic tomography model (3D2018_08Sv) is from Debayle, Dubuffet and Durand, GRL 2016.

The fully functional geological compass was designed in NEOS and programmed using NEOS' LogiX visual scripting language. While building virtual worlds in NEOS, I often receive the unsolicited help of many curious NEOS' users. TinBin was kind enough to fetch his friend H3BO3 and LeonClement who helped with the programing of my virtual compass. My colleague A/Prof Hamish McDougall (School of Psychology at the University of Sydney) added the dynamic ocean to my etopo models, and VRxist improved the display the earthquake dataset. GearBell explained to me how to optimize my world for fast download. I am also gratefull to Tomas Mariancik (aka Frooxius), head developer and creator of NEOS VR, for his availability and willigness to help me and other newbies getting started with NEOS.

Here is a movie showing the Virtual Campus of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney ... a work in progress using the NEOS VR plateform ...

The short movie below shows what etopo and earthquake data look like in virtual reality. Earthquakes' epicenters (2000-2019 magnitude ≥ 2.5) are color coded for magnitude (brighter is stronger). This 3D dataset is provided by Loic Norgeot (https://sketchfab.com/norgeotloic) with earthquake data from USGS. For the etopo dataset on the Earth globe, I have followed a recipe provided by Deutsches Klimarechenzentrum (DKRZ) https://tinyurl.com/shyxk6m. Omer Bodur produced the vizualisation of mantle plumes and sinking slabs from a CitcomS numerical simulation from Nicolas Flament.

Higher resolution Etopo dataset





Teaching Geological Mapping in Virtual Reality: A Proof of Concept

Patrice F. Rey, Basin Genesis Hub, Earthbyte Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney
Sunday 26th April, 2020

Why would you want to do that? – Indeed, what's the point? For a start, in time of pandemy, we need alternative ways to keep exposing our students to field geology and field mapping techniques. Second, many students are missing out on field experiences as not all of them are in position to participate to our field mapping camps. Third, for a better training students need more fieldwork, and VR can help to offer more field experience, in a safer environment and at a lower cost. Finally, won't it be great to be able to revisit with students key outcrops, and let students explore places they could not reach and map while in the field?

Is this even possible or affordable? – As it turns out, VR technology is mature enough to build immersive 3D landscapes using a combination of digital elevation model, satellite images and 3D photoscans of outcrops and rock samples. The combination of high-resolution satellite images, 3D photoscans and field photographs allows students to make observation at a range of scales, as they would in the field. In VR, students are able to map form-lines across the landscape, measure the orientation of structures, identify fossils and analyse micro-structures. Importantly, these 3D landscapes can be put together in a few hours using free data and free open source applications only. Hence, the only cost for running a virtual field mapping camp is that associated to the acquisition of VR headsets for students, a cost that compare favorably with usual field mapping fees.

Of course, no mapping is possible without a functioning geological compass and a GPS handset, though the latter is not absolutely necessary. The compass shown on the video below, was designed and programmed in NEOS VR using NEOS' LogiX scripting language. With this virtual compass, students can measure strike-dip and plunge-trend the exact same way they would in the field. The two videos below illustrate what is possible with today's VR technology.

Mt Erin (Yass, NSW) Geological Mapping Area of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney – The landscape shown on the video below was put together in QGIS 3.12 (open source GIS app) using free LiDAR 5m resolution data (https://elevation.fsdf.org.au) and free high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth. I used two QGIS plugins: OpenLayers to load the Google satellite images and Qgis2threejs to produce and save the 3D GIS landscape model into a gltf format, a format compatible with most VR platforms. The final QGIS 3D model, the 3D outcrop scan, and the field photographs were loaded and assembled into NEOS VR. This is a geological field mapping exercise, not a botanic excursion ;)... the random trees scattered across the landscape are for decorative purpose only. The geology of the region is mainly made of Devonian limestones, deformed during the Lachlan Orogenesis. The 3D outcrop on top of Mt Erin is exotic to the region. This outcrop is the famous Stackpole syncline (3D model from Adam Cawood and Clare Bond, The University of Aberdeen). It is made of Carboniferous limestones and it is located in Pembrokeshire, along the coast of SW Wales. Covid-19 permitting, it will be replaced asap by Mt Erin's Crinoidal limestone.

The 3D landscape model is here >> 3D model of Yass Geologic Mapping Area



Bonus: Workflow to produce 3D cartesian topographic maps for VR

1. Download SRTM30 data for example from https://topex.ucsd.edu/pub/srtm30_plus/srtm30/grd/
e.g. Download 4 tiles for the Tibet region: e060n40.nc, e060n90.nc, e100n40.nc and e100n90.nc 2. In Paraview (free open source code) load the four tiles, then apply the following filters: 3. Apply Filters > Alphabetical > ExtractSubset to all tiles, with sample rate 5 for I, J, and K. This filter reduces the size in mbytes of your dataset, and therefore its resolution.
4. Apply Filters > Alphabetical > Group Datasets to group the reduced tiles.
5. Apply Filters > Alphabetical > Warp By Scalar to the grouped dataset using Scalars = Elevation and Scaling Factor of 0.00025. This will raise the topography (elevation) along the z axis.
6. File > Export Scene, and choose the format x3d. This file can then be imported into NEOS.





Effectiveness of Learning in VR

Patrice F. Rey Basin Genesis Hub, Earthbyte Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney
Friday 29th May, 2020

TAFE NSW is moving forward with the use of VR technologies in the classroom, while documenting its effectiveness in learning. To this end, they have hire the service of a third party to independently evaluate the effectiveness of VR compared to standard mode of learning. Results are quite impressive and emphasize the efficacity of "embodied cognition" and "learning by doing".

TAFE NSW - Virtual Reality in Training: Evaluating Effectiveness & Efficacy
From Joe Millward and Greg Higgins, TAFE Digital Lab.




Update ...

Patrice F. Rey Basin Genesis Hub, Earthbyte Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney
Thursday 8th May, 2020

The geology and geophysics campus is moving along.