GEOG 497
3D Modeling and Virtual Reality

1.3 3D Modeling and VR in the Geospatial Sciences


1.3 3D Modeling and VR in the Geospatial Sciences

"At the time of writing, virtual reality in the civilian domain is a rudimentary technology, as anyone who has work a pair of eyephones will attest that the technology is advancing rapidly is perhaps less interesting than the fact that nearly all commentators discuss it as if it was a fully realized technology. There is a desire for virtual reality in our culture that on can quite fairly characterize as a yearning." (Penny, 1993: 18; in Gillings, 2002)

The Geospatial Sciences have an intricate relation to 3D modeling and VR. While representations of our
environments have been largely in 2D, that is, maps in the past centuries, there also have been efforts to make 3D information part of the geospatial toolset. This does not come as a surprise if we look outside the USA where GIScience is often part of Geomatics (surveying) departments, for example, in Canada and Australia. Interest in VR and 3D modeling has always come in waves so far, that is, people got interested and excited about the prospects of having 3D models and virtual access to these models (see quote by Penny above), started implementing systems and theorizing about the potential, and then gave up as they ran into too many obstacles. Looking into one such effort, a workshop and subsequent book project led by Peter Fisher and David Unwin (2002) summarized the state of the art in geography more than a decade ago and identified prospects and challenges of using VR:

  • Ergonomic issues such as feeling disorientated and nauseous also referred to as motion or cybersickness.
  • Substantial costs for everyone who wants to use a VR system.
  • A rather complex technology for getting content to users in comparison with other media such as the World Wide Web.

If we look at these problems from today’s perspective, we can confidently assert that most of these problems have been resolved (if not all of them). Motion sickness is largely taken care of by advancements in computing technology, that is, better sensor technology and higher framerates allow for almost perfect synchronization of proprioceptive and visual senses reducing or eliminating motion sickness. And, if anything, this is a development that will get even better in the near future as graphics card manufacturers such as NVIDIA or AMD are now developing new products for a growing market, not just a niche. Check out the specs of the new NVIDIA GTX 1080 in comparison to older models GEFORCE. Some problems still persist. It is still not the case that everyone feels comfortable in a VR environment and some people still get motion sick; unfortunately, it is worse if you are old or not getting enough VR time. However, we are getting very close to weed out ergonomics issues that have been standing in the way of mass deployment of VR.

As you see with the Cardboard version of a VR experience, the one that we have sent you, it is possible to get content into people’s hands rather easily. All you need is a smartphone and some apps. This still does not include high-end applications such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive as they require hardware as well as a beefy gaming computer, but with the advancements in computing power and the availability of low-cost VR ready system, it is only a matter of time until essentially everyone will be able to access a VR (or AR or MR) system.

Likewise, the issue of VR being a rather complex technology does certainly not stand in the way any longer. While VR and 3D modeling are still requiring some training for people who would like to dive deep into software and content development, creating a simple VR experience is as easy as pressing a button. The intro video that you can find on the introductory page is created using a Ricoh™ Theta S, a 360-degree camera that can be purchased via Amazon™ for about $350. During the development of the course, the software app that comes with this camera has drastically improved and allows now for watching videos in the viewer and has a direct upload to YouTube (rather than having to infuse 360-degree videos with additional information, which was the case in May 2016).

So what is remaining as a challenge for VR to become omnipresent in the geospatial sciences and to enter the mass market? Interestingly, in a recent survey, the lack of content has been identified as one of the main remaining obstacles (Perkins Coie LLP & UploadVR Inc., 2016). This is, in my humble
opinion, one of the biggest opportunities for the geospatial sciences. With a long-standing interest in organization information about the world in databases, scanning and sensing the environment, and, more recently modeling efficiently in 3D with geospatial specific approaches and technologies, geospatial is potentially playing a critical role in the developing VR market, and benefitting from it in return. We shall see whether this prediction holds.

For a long time, people have been building 3D models not in the computer but by using physical miniature versions of buildings. The Figure below shows a nice example of the 1630 city of Göttingen, Germany. To get an idea of the current status quo of 3D modeling from a GIS perspective we would like you to read a white paper published by Esri in 2014. Please be advised that there will be questions in quizzes and the final exam on the content of the white paper.

Download paper linked below

3D Urban Mapping: From Pretty Pictures to 3D GIS (An Esri White Paper, December 2014)

Göttingen, Stadtmuseum, model of city, ca. 1630. The forest is fiction, but typical for the region.
Figure xxx. Göttingen, Stadtmuseum, model of city, ca. 1630. The forest is fiction, but typical for the region.


Fisher, P. F., & Unwin, D. (Eds.). (2002). Virtual reality in geography. London, New York: Taylor & Francis.

Gillings, M. (2002). Virtual archaeologies and the hyper-real. In P. F. Fisher & D. Unwin (Eds.), Virtual reality in geography (pp. 17–34). London, New York: Taylor & Francis.

Penny, S. (1993). Virtual bodybuilding. Media Information Australia, 69, 17–22.

Perkins Coie LLP & UploadVR Inc. (2016). 2016 Augmented and Virtual Reality Survey Report. Retrieved from