Virtual reality image of the Atacama Desert (Northern Chile)

The Atacama Desert (Northern Chile) is the driest, highest and oldest desert in the world. The lack of rain preserves ancient features within the landscape in exceptional detail. 

This provides an excellent geomorphological and geological archive that spans some two million years that can be used to better understand current hazards that impact dryland areas. The particular focus of the research is understanding the potential causes and impacts of catastrophic flooding. In this project we aim to convey how geoscientists would explore and interpret such a landscape through the use of immersive Virtual Reality (VR). The challenges include communicating how geoscientists read a changing landscape and comprehending variable spatial and time-scales.

The team

The design team included a non VR savvy geoscientist and non geoscience savvy VR specialists. This encouraged clear communication, creative thinking and an organic element to the design of the experience based on the available resources through a number of interactive discussions. The end product is a VR interface (a laboratory) which can be utilised to expand the current field experience to a range of other environments in the future.

Group of friends playing games using virtual reality headsets
Davy Building

Based on a real laboratory

The user enters the VR experience via a laboratory, based on the real laboratory in the University of Plymouth Davy building where many of the samples for the fieldwork were analysed. The user can then explore pieces of equipment together with artefacts and rock samples which have been retrieved from the real field area. The user can explore this ‘safe’ environment before entering the more challenging virtual Atacama landscape via a sandbox in the laboratory.

The landscape has been re-constructed from actual drone and field imagery to provide as real an experience as is possible to encourage an emotive response to the extreme terrain (remoteness, baroness etc.). In the virtual field area the user will find the artefacts and rock samples in situ.

The user can then interact with the terrain, artefacts and samples to reveal how an expert would focus on specific features within that landscape to unravel their history (e.g. large boulders which can be used to recreate the flow event that deposited them) and understand the sequence of events that created the landscape. The user is encouraged to walk around and explore the landscape and use the information they discover to recreate the environment, processes and time-scales involved. The interface is designed to engage the user with the virtual experience in a non-linear way to simulate real fieldwork and to build confidence. The VR experience can be supplemented with the real artefacts and rock samples to tailor the experience.


One Polygon

One Polygon is the inception of passion in an era of digital creativity. Operating for a number of years, their journey has involved many exciting projects which challenged them to keep improving solutions for their clients. They strive to keep surpassing the expectations of not only their clients, but themselves in order to solve tomorrow’s problems.

The founders were still attending the University of Plymouth when One Polygon was born in a small office room at the heart of Plymouth. Now, it has grown into its own through working with great clients and partners to “completely change everything they thought possible.”

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Creative Associates

The Sustainable Earth Institute's Creative Associates projects aim to explore novel and innovative ways of communicating research and develop a portfolio of case studies of the different creative approaches possible.

Find out more about the initiatives
Patient at Krygyz Research Institute of Balneology and
Recovery Treatment. Interestingly, it doesn’t take much to move people from the
formal expressions in portraits into a much warmer mood. Image: Carey Marks

Image: Carey Marks/Creative Associates