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Using virtual reality to decode Hallett Cove

Image Credits: UniSA, Press Release

Hallett Cove is one of the world’s best-known geological heritage sites, filled with fossils and glacial secrets. Now, thanks to virtual reality technology, the ice-age past of Hallett Cove Conservation Park is revealed in a new, gamified VR experience – called Beyond the Ice – and is launched this week as part of National Science Week.

Developed by the University of South Australia’s Project LIVE team in partnership with a VR firm and the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Beyond the Ice is brought to life in spectacular 3D detail to reveal ancient and hidden stories of a fossilised landscape.

It captures 17 key geological sites using 360-degree panoramas, drone 3D models and walk-through footage to immerse users in an interactive quest, challenging them to identify fossils with a virtual hand lens, measure glacial grooves with a compass, and draw the outlines of rock folds and layers that shape the landscape with digital ink.

Users are also accompanied by the encyclopaedic ‘VT’ – a virtual robot guide with a geological memory spanning 600 million years – and can take part in quizzes, collect 3D pet rocks, and may even uncover a hidden Easter egg or two.

Freely available online, the geo-challenge can be experienced from anywhere in the world – whether by choice, distance, to accommodate mobility constraints, or even in COVID-19 lockdowns – simply by using a VR headset.

Project leader, geologist and SA Science Awards STEM Educator of the Year, UniSA’s Associate Professor stated that this unique virtual experience will entice and engage the imaginations of all.

He noted that unlike many VR experiences, this is a lot more than some pretty pictures and 3D models thrown together that don’t really offer much as a learning exercise. It was designed as an interactive, gamified experience that engages people in science by challenging them to unlock the geological secrets of Hallett Cove.

Through virtual reality, users can gain an amazing bird’s eye view of Hallett Cove – from the glacial striations of Black Cliff that show its ice-age connection to the South Pole, to the incredible Sugarloaf, a delicate and intricate sugar-like mound made up of glacial sediments that have been eroded over time.

Sugarloaf, a delicate and intricate sugar-like mound made up of glacial sediments. The simulator is an incredible way to see this stunning landscape in a way you’ve never seen before.

While Beyond the Ice has broad novelty and appeal, it also offers important educational aspects, particularly as an authentic supplement to fieldwork.

Fieldwork is the most critical learning experience for any science student, the Professor stated. Virtual reality experiences allow for an extra dimension to be added to the usual field training, so that students can repeat, reflect on and extend their field skills across more locations than are logistically or financially feasible to visit first-hand.

“The world really is your oyster in VR,” the Professor said.

Virtual reality not only provides both a flexible way to engage the next generation of science students, it also lets us adapt the program to suit different audiences, different skill levels and different field locations, so it’s a really fantastic step forward in online and immersive learning.

Beyond the Ice is available online now with school and community sessions to be held at the Project LIVE virtual reality studio at UniSA’s Mawson Lakes campus. Sessions can also be booked at VR arcades in both Adelaide and Melbourne (once restrictions there ease) via Project LIVE’s partnership with Virtual Reality Adelaide and Virtual Reality Melbourne.

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