GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 69-14
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM-5:30 PM


HOUGHTON, Jacqueline J.1, ROBINSON, Annabeth2, GORDON, Clare E.1, LLOYD, Geoff E.1 and MORGAN, Daniel J.1, (1)School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT, United Kingdom, (2)Leeds College of Art, Blenheim Walk, Leeds, LS2 9AQ,

We have created a series of video game-style worlds, using the Unity 3D game engine, which show geological maps draped over virtual landscapes. These are interactive block models that can be rotated, enlarged, walked and flown around to understand the 3D interaction of the geology with the topography and to compare with the 2D geological map.

A geological map expresses the 3D relationship between geology and topography in a 2D form; to understand and interpret the outcrop patterns on a geological map it is necessary to be able to visualize the 2D map in 3D. However, 3D visualisation and 3D / 2D relationships are concepts with which many students struggle, often only fully internalising these relationships once they have been in the field and seen actual examples.  Traditionally, these outcrop patterns have been taught as block diagrams of a valley and two hills with the geological unit running through it. How well students understand and intuitively use these spatial relationships of geological features depends on their visual-spatial abilities, but these are skills that can be enhanced through training with computer simulations (Mountney, 2009). The virtual approach offers immersive and realistic appreciation of 3D landscapes and relationships to geology, benefitting learning experience and outcomes of actual field training as more students pass the threshold into 3D thinking.

Our workflow is to create a base map/DEM, import this as a PDF file into Arc GIS to create a 3D terrain file that is then imported into Unity. The geological map forms a splatmap which is laid onto this.

Whilst we are currently focusing on outcrop patterns, there is potential for using the Unity 3D software to recreate real places and drapes of real maps on to their terrains to explore. This work is a spin-off from our major project (a collaboration between the University of Leeds and Leeds College of Art, UK) on using virtual landscapes to train students in basic field skills before going into the field (Houghton et al, 2015). All our virtual landscapes are freely available online at

  • GSA poster.pdf (36.0 MB)