Augmented reality app reveals campus monument's history as teaching tool

Liam Jackson
February 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Augmented reality is reviving the educational focus of the oldest monument on Penn State’s University Park campus. Known as the Obelisk, the nearly 33-foot-tall, 53.4-ton stone structure was originally constructed in 1896 to showcase regional rocks and minerals. Its 281 stones, procured from sites around Pennsylvania and neighboring states, are stacked by geologic time period, from youngest at the top to oldest at the base.

Now, anyone with a new Obelisk augmented-reality app, developed by researchers in the Department of Geography, can home in on details about each stone in the historic structure.

“There’s a database connected to each stone, so whenever you touch any stone in the app, you can see where it came from, how old it is, and other information,” said Arif Masrur, doctoral student in geography. “Eventually our goal is to also include 360-degree photos of the actual environment from where each rock was excavated.”

Masrur collaborated on the project with Alexander Klippel, professor of geography and director of Chorophronesis, and Jan Oliver Wallgrün, senior research associate in the Department of Geography.

Using augmented reality in the app gave the researchers a way to provide users with an interactive, educational experience. In augmented reality, a device’s camera is utilized to give the impression, on screen, that the world around a user has been changed, or augmented. Augmented reality has seen widespread popularity through Snapchat, Pokemon Go! and other apps, and many companies and researchers are exploring its potential educational use.

“Augmented reality is heavily promoted by tech giants such as Apple and Google, and is a key element in the next technology transformation that is on the horizon,” says Klippel. “We already have apps that allow for virtually placing furniture in our living rooms, showing the effects of flooding at specific locations or turning your backyard into a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. I’m certain that, very soon, we will be able to use augmented reality to turn every place into an interactive environment that allows for retrieving information and facilitates learning.”

The augmented-reality app uses technology that allows it to detect the plane of the ground. After opening the app, users point their device at the ground and tap on screen to make a digital 3-D model of the Obelisk appear. Users can interact with the 3-D model through the touchscreen of their mobile devices; they can scale the Obelisk to a bigger or smaller size or see different sides of the Obelisk by walking around the location where it appears on screen. Tapping on each stone reveals information about the stone’s mineral composition, geologic time period and more.

The team created the 3-D model of the Obelisk using special software that mimics the way humans understand their spatial environments.

“Humans’ understanding of depth is based on two eyes dynamically seeing the same part of the world,” said Klippel. “Computers and algorithms mimic this ability to derive depth information from regular images for 3-D models with a level of detail that was previously reserved for high-end laser scanning technology.”

After creating the 3-D model, the researchers collaborated with librarians in the Fletcher L. Byrom Earth and Mineral Sciences Library, who maintain a database with information about each of the Obelisk's stones.

"The Obelisk is a masterpiece of an artistic journey through time and space. Immersive technologies finally allow for giving it its meaning back, and make visitors, students and alumni see and experience it in an entirely new way and as it was meant to be,” said Klippel.

The Obelisk app is under development and can be downloaded for Android phones and tablets from the project website at The team is also planning to develop an iOS version.

  • Arif Masrur in front of Obelisk

    Geography doctoral student Arif Masrur stands in front of the Penn State Obelisk.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 06, 2018