Case Study - Illinois State Geological Survey


Illinois State Geological Survey

The ISGS, a division of the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability (INRS) at the University of Illinois, employs approximately 170 people over a range of geologic disciplines. It is one of the largest and most technologically advanced of all the US state surveys.

Over a decade ago, the Survey resolved to expand its detailed geological mapping program with a goal of developing a fully-computerized, 3-D mapping program. The ISGS initially assumed it could rely on existing software to meet its needs for various parts of our mapping workflow. While this was the case for initial 3-D mapping pilot studies, the existing software choices were found to be limiting and could not meet all of the ISGS’ long-term needs.


Geologic mapping and research in geological surveys typically involves interpreting and defining the regional framework of geologic units, and doing this over scales that range from the individual outcrop to thousands of square miles. This type of work requires geologists to explore different interpretations on the origin and correlation of surficial and subsurface deposits. Geologists work with a wide range of different kinds of data (e.g., outcrop descriptions, water well drillers logs, stratigraphic borings, geophysical borehole logs, etc.).

Since the computerization of geology about 25 years ago, there has been a continual push to expand what can be done with computer technology. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are about 25 years old, and have brought sophisticated capabilities for creating and managing 2-D geospatial map information. While recent years have seen the development of high-resolution 3-D visualization within GIS applications, these packages still work primarily with 2-D spatial data types. GIS applications largely haven’t evolved into tools for creating and managing complex 3-D geospatial data.

In order to meet all its needs, ISGS previously relied on a patchwork of software packages. It defined the major components of its new 3-D geologic mapping workflow as:
• data management
• 2-D surface interpolation
• 2-D map construction
• 3-D geologic map construction
• 3-D visualization
• 2-D/3-D map-product production
While there were several applications that seemed to fit ISGS’ demands, on further evaluation none of them met all its needs. ISGS decided it required software that accommodates all of its various types of information and allowed exploration of “what if” scenarios whilst also efficiently handling large 3-D data sets. In addition, during its evaluation discussions ISGS determined that it required intuitive mapping and visualization software that could be learned and used easily by the geologists for whom this software was to become a primary tool for viewing data and making maps.

From discussions with colleagues at the BGS and Virtalis, ISGS realized GeoVisionary would address all of its major goals for its 3-D visualization program. BGS geologists were emphatic in the value that the stereo visualization had brought to improving the efficiency and accuracy of its geologic mapping and consequently, ISGS decided to invest in GeoVisionary too.


GeoVisionary was developed initially to allow high-resolution visualization of the kinds of spatial data that are generally used in geologic mapping projects, including lidar elevation models and high-resolution aerial photography and satellite imagery. One of the design goals for GeoVisionary was to ensure that data sets for large regions, national to sub-continental, could be managed without loading everything into RAM and while allowing real-time interaction with the data. Virtalis’ 20 years of expertise in VR and handling large engineering CAD datasets made that goal possible. GeoVisionary provides high-resolution 3-D and 3-D stereo visualization that is limited only by the resolution of the data. It is highly scalable and is able to provide “fly-through” viewing of mid-continent-scale data sets in real-time at full speed. It also allows for digitization in 3-D space, allowing geologists to digitize geologic contacts directly on the 3-D elevation and orthophotography.

generic-h-small_lakecountydeltawboreholes_arcsceneHOW ISGS USES GEOVISIONARY

ISGS is using GeoVisionary as its main 3-D and stereo visualization software for its high-resolution mapping workflow.

“Most high-resolution visualization applications load everything into RAM and cannot manage large projects. Applications that can handle the large data sets typically provide degraded rendering quality, or they provide limited support for the data types we use. GeoVisionary was developed to view a wide range of earth science data types. The software pulls disparate mapping data together under one high-resolution 3-D visualization environment.”
Don Keefer, Director of the ISGS’ Geologic Mapping and Hydrogeology Center

Lines digitized in GeoVisionary can be immediately saved as shapefiles in ArcGIS. This linkage allows ISGS to continue to use its custom ArcGIS programs. In addition, Virtalis has added an Application Programming Interface (API) to allow ISGS to begin developing new customizations directly within GeoVisionary.


In addition to the initial order of five floating licenses, the ISGS has installed a Virtalis ActiveWall with a 14’ x 8’ screen. ActiveWall is Virtalis’ best selling interactive 3D visualisation system and probably the best selling VR system in the world, being scalable, easily upgradable, cost effective to run and virtually future proof.

ActiveWall draws on active stereo technology and features a custom screen, specialist computer, Virtalis custom software and powerful projectors. Movements within the ActiveWall environment are tracked using a tracking system. This added functionality alters the perspective of the visuals according to the user’s position and orientation within the scene to give a natural and accurate sense of scale. The hand held controller allows the immersive experience to be enhanced further. The user can navigate through the virtual world, pick and manipulate component parts in real-time and make decisions on the fly.

With GeoVisionary, the installation of the ActiveWall and the opening of the INRS Earth Systems Visualization Laboratory on the University of Illinois campus, ISGS is able to provide a host of high-resolution visualization and analysis solutions to a range of earth science research applications. The INRS Lab is designed to work across earth science domains, and the rendering capabilities of GeoVisionary, together with other tools (e.g. ArcGIS, Mathematica, Imagine), allow ISGS to meet that growing need.


Illinois State Geological Survey Website

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