Real world–based immersive Virtual Reality for research, teaching and communication in volcanology


Direct outcrop observation and field data collection are key techniques in research, teaching and outreach activities in volcanic areas. However, very often outcrops are of difficult or impossible access, such as in areas with active volcanoes or steep cliffs. Classical remote-sensing surveys by satellites or airplanes are expensive, rarely reach sufficient resolution to allow high-quality 3D visualisation of volcanic features and do not facilitate mapping of vertical cliffs. We describe a novel approach that uses immersive Virtual Reality (VR) based on real-world 3D Digital Outcrop Models (DOMs) from images surveyed by “unoccupied aerial system” (UAS). 3D DOMs are built up using the Structure-from-Motion (SfM) photogrammetry technique, and a VR scene is created using game engine technologies. Immersive real-time exploration of the environment is possible through a head-mounted display, e.g. Oculus Rift. Tools embedded in the VR environment allow the user to map polygons, lines and point features. Tools also allow to measure orientation, dip, inclination, azimuth, area and thickness and even take virtual photographs. Using three examples of volcanic areas with different geological features, we demonstrate the potential of our approach to allow users to be able to virtually map and measure remotely, and to collect data for research and teaching. Our approach is of paramount importance also for outreach, as it allows non-specialist audiences (e.g. common citizens) to experience and appreciate highly complex volcanic features through customised, hands-on immersive VR tools.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Agisoft LLC (2018) PhotoScan user manual, professional edition, version 1.4. Accessed 1 Oct 2018

  2. Andrade A (2015) Game engines: a survey. EAI Endorsed Transact Serious Games 2(6):150615.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Antoniou, V., Nomikou, P., Bardouli, P., Sorotou, P., Bonali, F., Ragia, L. and Metaxas, A. (2019) The story map for Metaxa mine (Santorini, Greece): a unique site where history and volcanology meet each other. In: proceedings of the 5th international conference on geographical information systems theory, applications and management, 1, 212–219. DOI:

  4. Benassi F, Dall'Asta E, Diotri F, Forlani G, di Cella UM, Roncella R, Santise M (2017) Testing accuracy and repeatability of UAV blocks oriented with gnss-supported aerial triangulation. Remote Sens 9(2):172

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bonali FL, Tibaldi A, Marchese F, Fallati L, Russo E, Corselli C, Savini A (2019) UAV-based surveying in volcano-tectonics: an example from the Iceland rift. J Struct Geol 121:46–64

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bond A, Sparks RSJ (1976) The Minoan eruption of Santorini, Greece. J Geol Soc Lond 132:1–16

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Browning J, Drymoni K, Gudmundsson A (2015) Forecasting magma-chamber rupture at Santorini volcano, Greece. Sci Rep 5:15785

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Burns JHR, Delparte D (2017) Comparison of commercial structure-from-motion photogrammety software used for underwater three-dimensional modeling of coral reef environments. In: International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences - ISPRS Archives 42:127–131

  9. Christopoulou E, Xinogalos S (2017) Overview and comparative analysis of game engines for desktop and mobile devices. Int J Serious Games 4(4).

  10. Cook KL (2017) An evaluation of the effectiveness of low-cost UAVs and structure from motion for geomorphic change detection. Geomorphology 278:195–208

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dering GM, Micklethwaite S, Thiele ST, Vollgger SA, Cruden AR (2019) Review of drones, photogrammetry and emerging sensor technology for the study of dykes: best practises and future potential. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 373:148–166

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Druitt TH (2014) New insights into the initiation and venting of the Bronze-Age eruption of Santorini (Greece), from component analysis. B Volcanol 76(2):794

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Esposito G, Mastrorocco G, Salvini R, Oliveti M, Starita P (2017) Application of UAV photogrammetry for the multi-temporal estimation of surface extent and volumetric excavation in the Sa Pigada Bianca open-pit mine, Sardinia, Italy. Environ Earth Sci 76(3):103

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Friedrich WL, Kromer B, Friedrich M, Heinemeier J, Pfeiffer T, Talamo S (2006) Santorini eruption radiocarbon dated to 1627-1600 BC. Science 312(5773):548–548

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gao M, Xu X, Klinger Y, van der Woerd J, Tapponnier P (2017) High-resolution mapping based on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to capture paleoseismic offsets along the Altyn-Tagh fault China. Sci Rep 7(1):8281

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gerloni IG, Carchiolo V, Vitello FR, Sciacca E, Becciani U, Costa A, Riggi S, Bonali FL, Russo E, Fallati L, Marchese F, Tibaldi A (2018) Immersive virtual reality for earth sciences. Proc Federated Confer Computer Sci Inform Syst 15:527–534.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gonzaga L, Veronez MR, Alves DN, Bordin F, Kannenberg GL, Marson FP, Tognoli FMW, Inocencio LC (2017) MOSIS - Multi-outcrop sharing & interpretation system. In 2017 IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium (IGARSS), 5209-5212), DOI:

  18. Granshaw FD, Duggan-Haas D (2012) Virtual fieldwork in geoscience teacher education: issues, techniques, and models. Geol Soc Am Spec Pap 492:285–303

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gudmundsson A (2006) How local stresses control magma-chamber ruptures, dyke injections, and eruptions in composite volcanoes. Earth Sci Rev 79(1–2):1–31

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Heiken G, McCoy F (1990) Precursory activity to the Minoan eruption, Thera, Greece. In: Hardy DA (ed) Thera and the Aegean World III, vol 2. Thera Foundation, London, pp 13–18

    Google Scholar 

  21. James MR, Robson S (2012) Straightforward reconstruction of 3D surfaces and topography with a camera: Accuracy and geoscience application. J Geophys Res Earth Surf 117(F3)

  22. James MR, Robson S (2014) Mitigating systematic error in topographic models derived from UAV and ground-based image networks. Earth Surf Process Landf 39(10):1413–1420

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. James MR, Robson S, d’Oleire-Oltmanns S, Niethammer U (2017) Optimising UAV topographic surveys processed with structure-from-motion: ground control quality, quantity and bundle adjustment. Geomorphology 280:51–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Krokos M, Bonali FL, Vitello F, Antoniou V, Becciani U, Russo E, Marchese F, Fallati L, Nomikou P, Kearl M, Sciacca E, Whitworth M (2019) Workflows for virtual reality visualisation and navigation scenarios in earth sciences. 5th International Conference on Geographical Information Systems Theory, Applications and Management: GISTAM 2019, SciTePress

  25. Lawson E (2015) Game engine analysis (

  26. McClelland E, Thomas R (1990) A palaeomagnetic study of Minoan age tephra from Thera. In: Hardy DA (ed) Thera and the Aegean World III, Vol. 2 earth sciences. Thera Foundation, London, pp 129–138

    Google Scholar 

  27. Müller D, Walter TR, Schöpa A, Witt T, Steinke B, Gudmundsson MT, Dürig T (2017) High-resolution digital elevation modeling from TLS and UAV campaign reveals structural complexity at the 2014/2015 Holuhraun eruption site. Iceland Front Earth Sci 5:59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Nomikou P, Druitt TH, Hübscher C, Mather TA, Paulatto M, Kalnins LM, Kelfoun K, Papanikolaou D, Bejelou K, Lampridou D, Pyle DM, Carey S, Watts AB, Weiß B, Parks MM (2016) Post-eruptive flooding of Santorini caldera and implications for tsunami generation, Nature Communication

  29. Pavlis TL, Mason KA (2017) The new world of 3D geologic mapping. GSA Today 27(9):4–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rathje EM, Franke K (2016) Remote sensing for geotechnical earthquake reconnaissance. Soil Dyn Earthq Eng 91:304–316

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Rust D, Whitworth M (2019) A unique 12 ka subaerial record of rift-transform triple-junction tectonics, N.E. Iceland. Sci Rep 9:9669.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Smith M, Carrivick J, Quincey D (2016) Structure from motion photogrammetry in physical geography. Progress Phys Geogr: Earth Environ 40(2):247–275

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Stal C, De Wulf A, De Coene K, De Maeyer P, Nuttens T, Ongena T (2012) Digital representation of historical globes: methods to make 3D and pseudo-3D models of sixteenth century Mercator globes. The Cartogr J 49(2):107–117

  34. Tavani S, Granado P, Corradetti A, Girundo M, Iannace A, Arbués P, Muñozb JA, Mazzoli S (2014) Building a virtual outcrop, extracting geological information from it, and sharing the results in Google Earth via OpenPlot and Photoscan: an example from the Khaviz Anticline (Iran). Comput Geosci 63:44–53

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Trexler CC, Morelan AE, Oskin ME, Kreylos O (2018) Surface slip from the 2014 South Napa earthquake measured with structure from motion and 3-D virtual reality. Geophys Res Lett 45(12):5985–5991

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Turner D, Lucieer A, Watson C (2012) An automated technique for generating georectified mosaics from ultra-high resolution unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery, based on structure from motion (SfM) point clouds. Remote sensing 4(5):1392–1410

  37. Vereb V, van Wyk de Vries B, Hagos M (2019) Remote sensing monitoring and geosite assessment of Dallol, Ethiopia. Putting an isolated and deserted area on map with geoheritage and resilience. Geophys Res Abstr 21:EGU2019–EGU5640

    Google Scholar 

  38. Walter TR, Jousset P, Allahbakhshi M, Witt T, Gudmundsson MT, Hersir GP (2018) Underwater and drone based photogrammetry reveals structural control at Geysir geothermal field in Iceland. J Volcanol Geotherm Res.

  39. Westoby MJ, Brasington J, Glasser NF, Hambrey MJ, Reynolds JM (2012) ‘Structure-from-motion’ photogrammetry: a low-cost, effective tool for geoscience applications. Geomorphology 179:300–314

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Xu X, Aiken CL, Nielsen KC (1999) Real time and the virtual outcrop improve geological field mapping. EOS Trans Am Geophys Union 80(29):317–324

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Zhao J, Wallgrün JO, LaFemina PC, Normandeau, J., & Klippel, A. (2019) Harnessing the power of immersive virtual reality-visualization and analysis of 3D Earth science data sets. Geo-spatial Information Science, 1–14

Download references


We greatly appreciated the useful comments on an early version of the manuscript of the Editor, Jacopo Taddeucci, and two anonymous reviewers. The UAS survey of the Dallol volcano was made in collaboration with Olivier Grunewald ( Agisoft Metashape is acknowledged for photogrammetric data processing.


This study was funded by project ACPR15T4_00098 “Agreement between the University of Milan Bicocca and the Cometa Consortium for the experimentation of cutting-edge interactive technologies for the improvement of science teaching and dissemination” of Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (coordinated by A. Tibaldi), and project Erasmus+ Key Action 2 2017-1-UK01-KA203-036719 “3DTeLC - Bringing the 3D-world into the classroom: a new approach to Teaching, Learning and Communicating the science of geohazards in terrestrial and marine environments” (coordinated by M. Whitworth). The examples are integrated into the UNESCO International Geosciences Program project 692 “Geoheritage for Geohazard Resilience” (coordinated by B. van Wyk de Vries). This article is also an outcome of Project MIUR – Dipartimenti di Eccellenza 2018–2022 and ILP Task Force II.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. Tibaldi.

Additional information

Editorial responsibility and Deputy Executive Editor: J. Tadeucci

Electronic supplementary material


(PDF 52 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tibaldi, A., Bonali, F.L., Vitello, F. et al. Real world–based immersive Virtual Reality for research, teaching and communication in volcanology. Bull Volcanol 82, 38 (2020).

Download citation


  • Volcanology
  • Teaching & scientific communication
  • Immersive Virtual Reality
  • Head-mounted displays