Suramya's Blog : Welcome to my crazy life…

September 18, 2020

How to Toonify yourself

Filed under: Interesting Sites,My Thoughts — Suramya @ 10:57 AM

While surfing the web I came across ‘Toonify Yourself!‘ that allows you to upload a photo and see what you’d look like in an animated movie. It uses deep learning and is based on distillation of a blended StyleGAN models into a pix2pixHD image to image translation network.

It sounded interesting, so I tried it out with one of my pictures and got the following results:


Original image

Toonified Image

I quite like the result and am thinking of using it as my avatar going forward. What do you think?
Thanks to Hacker News for the link

– Suramya

Hackers – 25th Anniversary thoughts

Filed under: My Life,My Thoughts — Suramya @ 10:01 AM

15 September 2020, was the 25th anniversary of one of my favorite movies which also happens to be one of the most iconic movies about hacking ever released: Hackers. I first saw the movie in late 1999. I was introduced to it by Jerome who was my RA in college at the time and it has been one of the most fun and phenomenal movies on hacking that I’ve seen.

Yes, the video depictions of hacking are corny since there are no 3d file systems that we have to navigate and when we open a file it doesn’t give a 3D psychedelic video with equations floating around, but the overall concept and the whole mindset of what hacking actually means is very accurately depicted in the movie. For example, a lot of hacking involves social engineering and right in the beginning of the movie Dade/Crash Override social engineers a security guard to get access to the computer systems for the TV Network he is trying to take over. There are tons of quotes in the movie that cover/reference the core of the Hacker identity in the 90’s. Some of my favorites are:

We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons.

[- Razor & Blade. While demoing Phone Phreaking]

We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals.
You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. “My crime is that of curiosity.” I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.

[From the Hackers Manifesto]

“Hackers of the world unite!”

“Hack the planet!”

These are all things that we grew up with, and refer to core hacker identity/mindset in 90’s. It actually surprised me to find that the original hacker manifesto was no longer easily available and had to resort to visiting the Internet Archive to pull up a copy of it. The movie gives you a good idea of what the original definition of hacking was: learning for the sake of learning & curiosity. It encouraged/inspired a whole generation of folks to go into computers & hacking. I remember this quote from one of the kids I watched a movie with in college, and he basically said, “watching this movie makes you want to go learn computers so you can do cool stuff like this instead of the boring ass programming crap we have been doing.”.

I saw the news of the movie’s 25th Anniversary on my twitter feed 2 days ago and since I was feeling nostalgic I watched the movie again yesterday night. And I’m happy to report, I still love the movie. Yes, there are parts of the movie that feel dated e.g. where they are all running around with floppy disks & CRT monitors and the phone couplers! and it’s corny to see everyone being on skateboards/rollerblading all the time. But overall the movie itself doesn’t feel dated in fact even the graphics from the movie have aged quite well.

The movie got a lot of flack on it’s release for being “dubious,” “unrealistic,” and “implausible.” A lot of the visualization was just plain silly (but really visually awesome) like the super cool looking 3d visual file systems that the protagonists have to navigate or the really cool looking 3D visualization with floating equations that come up when they try to view the ‘garbage file’.

Yes the movie is not accurate, but what movie is? I mean, it is at the end of the day a fictional story to tell people, have a great visual and audio extravaganza. All of that is not meant to be an accurate representation of the hacking process because honestly speaking, watching people type for three hours will probably be one of the most boring movies that I could think of and interestingly even with this visual extravaganza the movie was a comercial failure when it came out and it’s only over the years it’s become a cult favorite. There are other movies like ‘the Net’ or Sneakers that also covered Hacking/hackers but none of them had the lasting impact Hackers did.

Always remember: “This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. “

#hacktheplanet

– Suramya

September 17, 2020

How HTTPS Works? Explained in a comic!

Filed under: Computer Security,Security Tutorials — Suramya @ 10:41 AM

Found a fantastic explanation of HTTPS works, what is SSL/TLS & why you should care about any of it in a easy to understand comic format. I love seeing comics like this that aim to show concepts in simple ways.

Have you ever wondered why a green lock icon appears on your browser URL bar? And why is it important? We did too, and this comic is for you!
Follow the adventures of Certificat, Browserbird, and Compugter as they explain why HTTPS is crucial for the future of the web and how it all works together.
Don’t let the bad crabs get you (you’ll know what we mean in the comic). Get to know HTTPS and why it is essential to your privacy.

Check it out at: howhttps.works

– Suramya

September 16, 2020

Potential signs of life found on Venus: Are we no longer alone in the universe?

Filed under: Interesting Sites,My Thoughts,News/Articles — Suramya @ 11:15 AM

If you have been watching the Astronomy chatter the past two days, you would have seen the headlines screaming about the possibility of life being found on Venus. Other less reputable sources are claiming that we have found definite proof of alien life. Both are inaccurate as even though we have found something that is easily explained by assuming the possibility of extra-terrestrial life there are other potential explanations that could cause the anomaly. So what is this discovery, you might ask which is causing people worldwide to start freaking out?

During analysis of spectrometer readings of Venus, scientists made a startling discovery high in its atmosphere; they found traces of phosphine (PH3) gas in Venus’s atmosphere, where any phosphorus should be in oxidized forms at a concentration (~20 parts per billion) that is hard to explain. It is unlikely that the gas is produced by abiotic production routes in Venus’s atmosphere, clouds, surface and subsurface, or from lightning, volcanic or meteoritic delivery (See the explanation below), hence the worldwide freak out. Basically the only way we know that this gas could be produced in the quantity measured is if there are anaerobic life (microbial organisms that don’t require or use oxygen) producing the gas on Venus. Obviously this doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways that we haven’t thought about yet that could be generating this gas. But the discovery is causing a big stir and will cause various space programs to start refocusing their efforts on Venus. India’s ISRO already has a mission planned to study the surface and atmosphere of Venus called ‘Shukrayaan-1‘ set to launch late 2020’s after the Mars Orbiter Mission 2 launches and you can be sure that they will be attempting to validate these findings when we get there.

The only way to conclusively prove life exists on Venus would be to go there and collect samples containing extra-terrestrial microbes. Since it’s impossible to prove a negative this will be the only concrete proof that we can trust. Anything else will still leave the door open for other potential explanations for the gas generation.

Here’s a link to the press briefing on the possible Venus biosignature announcement from @RoyalAstroSoc featuring comment from several of the scientists involved.

The recent candidate detection of ppb amounts of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus is a highly unexpected discovery. Millimetre-waveband spectra of Venus from both ALMA and the JCMT telescopes at 266.9445 GHz show a PH3 absorption-line profile against the thermal background from deeper, hotter layers of the atmosphere indicating ~20 ppb abundance. Uncertainties arise primarily from uncertainties in pressure-broadening coefficients and noise in the JCMT signal. Throughout this paper we will describe the predicted abundance as ~20 ppb unless otherwise stated. The thermal emission has a peak emission at 56 km with the FWHM spans approximately 53 to 61 km (Greaves et al. 2020). Phosphine is therefore present above ~55 km: whether it is present below this altitude is not determined by these observations. The upper limit on phosphine occurrence is not defined by the observations, but is set by the half-life of phosphine at <80 km, as discussed below.

Phosphine is a reduced, reactive gaseous phosphorus species, which is not expected to be present in the oxidized, hydrogen-poor Venusian atmosphere, surface, or interior. Phosphine is detected in the atmospheres of three other solar system planets: Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth. Phosphine is present in the giant planet atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, as identified by ground-based telescope observations at submillimeter and infrared wavelengths (Bregman et al. 1975; Larson et al. 1977; Tarrago et al. 1992; Weisstein and Serabyn 1996). In giant planets, PH3 is expected to contain the entirety of the atmospheres’ phosphorus in the deep
atmosphere layers (Visscher et al. 2006), where the pressure, temperature and the concentration of H2 are sufficiently high for PH3 formation to be thermodynamically favored. In the upper atmosphere, phosphine is present at concentrations several orders of magnitude higher than predicted by thermodynamic equilibrium (Fletcher et al. 2009). Phosphine in the upper layers is dredged up by convection after its formation deeper in the atmosphere, at depths greater than 600 km (Noll and Marley 1997).

An analogous process of forming phosphine under high H2 pressure and high temperature followed by dredge-up to the observable atmosphere cannot happen on worlds like Venus or Earth for two reasons. First, hydrogen is a trace species in rocky planet atmospheres, so the formation of phosphine is not favored as it is in the deep atmospheres of the H2-dominated giant planets. On Earth H2 reaches 0.55 ppm levels (Novelli et al. 1999), on Venus it is much lower at ~4 ppb (Gruchola et al. 2019; Krasnopolsky 2010). Second, rocky planet atmospheres do not extend to a depth where, even if their atmosphere were composed primarily of hydrogen, phosphine formation would be favored (the possibility that phosphine can be formed below the surface and then being erupted out of volcanoes is addressed separately in Section 3.2.2 and Section 3.2.3, but is also highly unlikely).

Despite such unfavorable conditions for phosphine production, Earth is known to have PH3 in its atmosphere at ppq to ppt levels (see e.g. (Gassmann et al. 1996; Glindemann et al. 2003; Pasek et al. 2014) and reviewed in (Sousa-Silva et al. 2020)) PH3’s persistence in the Earth atmosphere is a result of the presence of microbial life on the Earth’s surface (as discussed in Section 1.1.2 below), and of human industrial activity. Neither the deep formation of phosphine and subsequent dredging to the surface nor its biological synthesis has hitherto been considered a plausible process to occur on Venus.

More details of the finding are explained in the following two papers published by the scientists:

Whatever the reason for the gas maybe, its a great finding as it has reenergized the search for Extra-Terrestrial life and as we all know: “The Truth is out there…”.

– Suramya

September 15, 2020

Neuroscience is starting to figure out why people feel lonely

Filed under: Interesting Sites,My Thoughts — Suramya @ 10:10 PM

Loneliness is a social epidemic which has been amplified by the current Pandemic as humans have an inbuilt desire to be social and interact with each other. The lockdown and isolation due to Covid-19 is not helping things much in this sense. The amount of cases of clinical depression are going up world wide and psychologists world wide are concerned about the impact of this in the near future.

Humans have been talking about social isolation/loneliness for centuries but till date we haven’t really analyzed it from a neurological point of view; to say what does really happen when we are lonely? Does the desire for companionship light up a section of our brain similar to what happens when we are hungry and are craving food? Till recently there wasn’t much research done on the topic, infact till Kay Tye decided to do research on the the neuroscience of loneliness in 2016 there were no published papers that talked about loneliness & contained references to ‘cells’, ‘neurons’, or ‘brain’. So while working at the Stanford University lab of Karl Deisseroth, Tye decided to spend some time trying to isolate the neurons in rodent brains responsible for the need for social interaction. In addition to identifying the region in rodents she has also managed to manipulate the need by directly stimulating the neurons which is a fantastic break through.

Deisseroth had pioneered optogenetics, a technique in which genetically engineered, light-sensitive proteins are implanted into brain cells; researchers can then turn individual neurons on or off simply by shining lights on them though fiber-optic cables. Though the technique is far too invasive to use in people—as well as an injection into the brain to deliver the proteins, it requires threading the fiber-optic cable through the skull and directly into the brain—it allows researchers to tweak neurons in live, freely moving rodents and then observe their behavior.

Tye began using optogenetics in rodents to trace the neural circuits involved in emotion, motivation, and social behaviors. She found that by activating a neuron and then identifying the other parts of the brain that responded to the signal the neuron gave out, she could trace the discrete circuits of cells that work together to perform specific functions. Tye meticulously traced the connections out of the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons thought to be the seat of fear and anxiety both in rodents and in humans.

One of the first things Tye and Matthews noticed was that when they stimulated these neurons, the animals were more likely to seek social interaction with other mice. In a later experiment, they showed that animals, when given the choice, actively avoided areas of their cages that, when entered, triggered the activation of the neurons. This suggested that their quest for social interaction was driven more by a desire to avoid pain than to generate pleasure—an experience that mimicked the “aversive” experience of loneliness.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers put some of the mice in solitary confinement for 24 hours and then reintroduced them to social groups. As one would expect, the animals sought out and spent an unusual amount of time interacting with other animals, as if they’d been “lonely.” Then Tye and Matthews isolated the same mice again, this time using optogenetics to silence the DRN neurons after the period in solitary. This time, the animals lost the desire for social contact. It was as if the social isolation had not been registered in their brains.

Since the experiment worked on Mice, the next step involved replicating the same thing with humans. Unfortunately they couldn’t use the same method to study the human behavior as no one sane would opt to have fiber-optic cable wired through their head just to participate in a study. So they fell back to a more imprecise method of using fMRI’s to scan the brains of the volunteers and she was able to identify a voxel (discrete population of several thousand neurons) that respond to the desire of wanting something like food/company. In fact they even managed to separate the two area’s responsible for desiring food and desiring company.

This is a fantastic first step because we have managed to identify the first part of the circuit that makes us social animals, obviously a lot more study is needed before this will have practical applications but we have taken the first steps towards the goal. It’s not hard to imagine a future where we have the ability to help suicidal people by simulating the area of their brain that enables them to extract joy from social connections. Or suppress the same in people who have to spend long duration’s of time alone, for example astronauts in interplanetary travel or deep sea researchers etc. The possibilities are endless.

Source: Why do you feel lonely? Neuroscience is starting to find answers.

– Suramya

September 14, 2020

Fusion is possible in the Future – First Article by my Nephew Vir (8 years old)

Filed under: My Life — Suramya @ 9:05 PM

My 8 year old Nephew Vir has written his first article on “Fusion is possible in the future”. Since I am really proud of him I am sharing it here for you all to read as well.

—- Start Article —-

Fusion is possible in the future

Fusion is a reliable source of clean energy made by plasma when it is put in a nuclear fusion reactor. But not just any plasma will do, we need HE-3/ a radioactive isotope of helium (2 in the periodic table of elements) found on the moon.

2.Nucear fusion is the process that makes the sun shine.

When nuclieses of atoms collide they release tremendous amounts of energy . An atom is the most basic matter, made of quarks and electrons .The quarks make protons and neutrons which makes a nucleus.
For fusion to occur plasmas need to be hotter and denser than they naturally exist.

If fusion reactors were possible now they would use @2@ ways to get plasma hot and dense enough . way !1!. First: they would use super powerful lasers and an electromagnetic field to do that . Way @2@ .second we would put it in a donut shape reactor and use magnetic fields to compress the plasma. A donut shape reactor works like this:The magnetic field comprises the hot plasma and the plasma generates its own heat .
All of this is very costly, that’s why we can’t do it YET.

So in the future, we could possibly use way @2@ because it’s less costly and much safer.it’s safer because if the reaction fald the plasma would expand and cool

—- End Article —-

What do you think of the Article? I am not going to write much in this post as I want the focus to be his article.

– Suramya

September 13, 2020

Convert Waste Heat From Devices Like Refrigerators Into Electricity

Filed under: Emerging Tech — Suramya @ 11:57 PM

All electric devices that we use continuously dump waste heat into their surroundings, the amount discarded as heat depends on how efficient the device is. However no matter how efficient the device is there is always some energy lost as heat. We have known for years how to convert heat into electricity (that’s how power plants work), but that requires a large amount of heat and the waste heat generated by our devices is too low to covert to electricity in a cost effective/efficient manner.

There are specialized semiconductors called thermoelectric materials that generate electricity when one side of the material is hotter than the other. Unfortunately for them to work well the heat difference between the two sides needs to be in the order of hundreds of degrees making them useless to convert low-grade heat to electricity. To solve this problem materials physicist Jun Zhou and colleagues at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology have come up with Thermocells that use liquids instead of solids in the space between the two sides. The liquid conducts charges from the hot side to the cold side by moving charged molecules or ions instead of electrons. This unfortunately also transfers heat from one side to the other making them less efficient over the long run. To solve that problem they spiked the ferricyanide with a positively charged organic compound called guanidinium that reduces the thermal conductivity of the solution making it over 5 times more efficient than the previous versions.

Zhou and colleagues started with a small thermocell: a domino-size chamber with electrodes on the top and bottom. The bottom electrode sat on a hot plate and the top electrode abutted a cooler, maintaining a 50°C temperature difference between the two electrodes. They then filled the chamber with ionically charged liquid called ferricyanide.

Past research has shown that ferricyanide ions next to a hot electrode spontaneously give up an electron, changing from one with a –4 charge, or Fe(CN)6–4, to an ferricyanide with a –3 charge, or Fe(CN)6–3. The electrons then travel through an external circuit to the cold electrode, powering small devices on the way. Once they reach the cold electrode, the electrons combine with Fe(CN)6–3 ions that diffused up from below. This regenerates Fe(CN)6–4 ions, which then diffuse back down to the hot electrode and repeat the cycle.

To reduce the heat carried by these moving ions, Zhou and his colleagues spiked their ferricyanide with a positively charged organic compound called guanidinium. At the cold electrode, guanidinium causes the cold Fe(CN)6–4 ions to crystallize into tiny solid particles. Because solid particles have lower thermal conductivity than liquids, they block some of the heat traveling from the hot to the cold electrode. Gravity then pulls these crystals to the hot electrode, where the extra heat turns the crystals back into a liquid. “This is very clever,” Liu says, as the solid particles helped maintain the temperature gradient between the two electrodes.

If we can make this more efficient and get similar energy output while reducing the cost of the cell by using more inexpensive materials in the cell then we can soon imagine a world where we can power devices using the ambient heat around us. It will also allow us to make engines/motors/gadgets etc more efficient by reducing their energy requirements.

The study was published this week in Science: Thermosensitive crystallization–boosted liquid thermocells for low-grade heat harvesting

– Suramya

September 12, 2020

Post-Quantum Cryptography

Filed under: Computer Related,Quantum Computing,Techie Stuff — Suramya @ 11:29 AM

As you are aware one of the big promises of Quantum Computers is the ability to break existing Encryption algorithms in a realistic time frame. If you are not aware of this, then here’s a quick primer on Computer Security/cryptography. Basically the current security of cryptography relies on certain “hard” problems—calculations which are practically impossible to solve without the correct cryptographic key. For example it is trivial to multiply two numbers together: 593 times 829 is 491,597 but it is hard to start with the number 491,597 and work out which two prime numbers must be multiplied to produce it and it becomes increasingly difficult as the numbers get larger. Such hard problems form the basis of algorithms like the RSA that would take the best computers available billions of years to solve and all current IT security aspects are built on top of this basic foundation.

Quantum Computers use “qubits” where a single qubit is able to encode more than two states (Technically, each qubit can store a superposition of multiple states) making it possible for it to perform massively parallel computations in parallel. This makes it theoretically possible for a Quantum computer with enough qubits to break traditional encryption in a reasonable time frame. In a theoretical projection it was postulated that a Quantum Computer could break a 2048-bit RSA encryption in ~8 hours. Which as you can imagine is a pretty big deal. But there is no need to panic as this is something that is still only theoretically possible as of now.

However this is something that is coming down the line so the worlds foremost Cryptographic experts have been working on Quantum safe encryption and for the past 3 years the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been examining new approaches to encryption and data protection. Out of the initial 69 submissions received three years ago the group narrowed the field down to 15 finalists after two rounds of reviews. NIST has now begun the third round of public review of the algorithms to help decide the core of the first post-quantum cryptography standard.

They are expecting to end the round with one or two algorithms for encryption and key establishment, and one or two others for digital signatures. To make the process easier/more manageable they have divided the finalists into two groups or tracks, with the first track containing the top 7 algorithms that are most promising and have a high probability of being suitable for wide application after the round finishes. The second track has the remaining eight algorithms which need more time to mature or are tailored to a specific application.

The third-round finalist public-key encryption and key-establishment algorithms are Classic McEliece, CRYSTALS-KYBER, NTRU, and SABER. The third-round finalists for digital signatures are CRYSTALS-DILITHIUM, FALCON, and Rainbow. These finalists will be considered for standardization at the end of the third round. In addition, eight alternate candidate algorithms will also advance to the third round: BIKE, FrodoKEM, HQC, NTRU Prime, SIKE, GeMSS, Picnic, and SPHINCS+. These additional candidates are still being considered for standardization, although this is unlikely to occur at the end of the third round. NIST hopes that the announcement of these finalists and additional candidates will serve to focus the cryptographic community’s attention during the next round.

You should check out this talk by Daniel Apon of NIST detailing the selection criteria used to classify the finalists and the full paper with technical details is available here.

Source: Schneier on Security: More on NIST’s Post-Quantum Cryptography

– Suramya

September 11, 2020

Testing the world’s largest digital camera by photographing Broccoli

Filed under: Astronomy,Techie Stuff — Suramya @ 6:53 PM

The world largest digital camera has completed its first test successfully by capturing the first 3,200-megapixel images of a Broccoli. This camera is meant to be part of the telescope at the Vera Rubin Observatory where they will be taking photographs of the sky to help us improve our understanding of the universe. Once it goes live it will photograph its entire field of view (the area of about 40 full moons) every few nights, which will give the researchers the ability to pinpoint the locations of billions of stars and galaxies, while also catching anything that moves or flashes.

The imaging sensors for the camera took over 6 months to assemble as they need to be mounted very precisely. The sensors are assembled in a grid of 9 sensors called a scientific raft and the whole setup consists of 25 rafts. Each raft is precisely mounted with a gap of just 5 human hairs between each raft. Each raft costs approximately $3 million each so you won’t be able to buy it from the corner shop anytime soon. Once the sensors were assembled successfully the whole apparatus is cooled to a negative 150 degrees Fahrenheit which is their operating temperature.

Even though the assembly was completed back in January the scientists were unable to take test pictures due to the Coronavirus pandemic till May. Even though the sensor assembly has been completed the team still doesn’t have all the remaining camera components such as lenses. So they had to improvise by using a 150-micron pinhole to project images on to the CCD array. That’s correct, they used the same ‘technology’ as what we used as kids to learn about photography to take a picture with the largest ever camera built.

Since they needed to take a picture of something that would allow them to verify the quality of the picture they decided to take a picture of Broccoli which has a lot of lumps & bumps on its surface making its structure perfect to test out the new camera sensors.

“Taking these images is a major accomplishment,” said Aaron Roodman, professor and chair of the particle physics and astrophysics department and the scientist at SLAC responsible for the assembly and testing of the LSST camera, in a statement.

“With the tight specifications we really pushed the limits of what’s possible to take advantage of every square millimeter of the focal plane and maximize the science we can do with it.”

The team is estimating that the camera would be ready for testing by mid-2021 before it’s sent off to Chile for installation in the Vera Rubin Observatory.

Source: Vera Rubin: Super telescope’s giant camera spies broccoli

– Suramya

September 9, 2020

Augmented Reality Geology

Filed under: Computer Software,Emerging Tech,Interesting Sites — Suramya @ 10:17 PM

A lot of times when you look at Augmented Reality (AR), it seems like a solution looking for problem. We still haven’t found the Killer App for AR like the VisiCalc spreadsheet was the killer app for the Apple II and Lotus 1-2-3 & Excel were for the IBM PC. There are various initiatives underway but no one has hit the jackpot yet. There are applications that allow a Doctor to see a reference text or diagram in a heads up display when they’re operating which is something that’s very useful but that’s a niche market. We need something broader in scope and there is a lot of effort focused on the educational field where they’re trying to see if they can use augmented reality in classrooms.

One of the Implementations that sounds very cool is by an app that I found recently where they are using it to project a view of rocks and minerals etc for geology students using AR. Traditionally students are taught by showing them actual physical samples of the minerals and 2D images of larger scale items like meteor craters or strata. The traditional way has its own problems of storage and portability but with AR you can look at a meteor crater in a 3D view, and the teacher can walk you through visually on how it looks and what geological stresses etc formed around it. The same is also possible for minerals and crystals along with other things.

There’s a new app, called GeoXplorer available on both Android and iOS that allows you to achieve this. The app was created by the Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration to help students understand the complex, three-dimensional nature of geologic structures without having to travel all over the world. The app has a lot of models programmed into the system already with more on the way. Thanks to interest from other fields they are looking at including models of proteins, art, and archeology as well into the App.

“You want to represent that data, not in a projective way like you would do on a screen on a textbook, but actually in a three-dimensional way,” Pratt said. “So you can actually look around it [and] manipulate it exactly how you would do in real life. The thing with augmented reality that we found most attractive [compared to virtual reality] is that it provides a much more intuitive teacher-student setting. You’re not hidden behind avatars. You can use body-language cues [like] eye contact to direct people to where you want to go.”

Working with the Unity game engine, Pratt has since put together a flexible app called GeoXplorer (for iOS and Android) for displaying other models. There is already a large collection of crystalline structure models for different minerals, allowing you to see how all the atoms are arranged. There are also a number of different types of rocks, so you can see what those minerals look like in the macro world. Stepping up again in scale, there are entire rock outcrops, allowing for a genuine geology field-trip experience in your living room. Even bigger, there are terrain maps for landscapes on Earth, as well as on the Moon and Mars.

Its still a work in progress but I think it’s going to be something which is going to be really cool and might be quite a big thing coming soon into classrooms around the world. The one major constraint that I can see is right now, you have to use your phone as the AR gateway which makes it a bit cumbersome to use, something like a Microsoft HoloLens or other augmented reality goggles will make it really easy to use and make it more natural, but obviously the cost factor of these lenses is a big problem. Keeping that in mind it’s easy to understand why they went with the Phone as the AR gateway instead of a Hololens or something similar.

From Martian terrain samples collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to rare hand samples too delicate to handle, the team is constantly expanding the catalog of 3D models available through GeoXplorer and if you have a model you’d like to see added to the app please get in contact with the Fossett Lab at fossett.lab@wustl.edu.

– Suramya

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