The local landscape can only offer so much to geology students wishing to understand the Earth's structure and dynamics. At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., those students are taking their studies to a new level of detail using technology developed by NASA and Carnegie Mellon University.

Professor Christopher "Chuck" Bailey has introduced his students to GigaPan, a type of super-high resolution photography in which images consist of millions to billions of pixels. That's opposed to the hundreds or thousands that people are used to seeing in everyday photography.

GigaPan is based on technology that NASA's rovers use to take pictures of landscapes on Mars. Think panoramic, but multiplied. Published GigaPan images of a packed baseball stadium and presidential inauguration ceremony, for example, allow the viewer to zoom in so close that individual faces can be identitfied within the crowds.

In Bailey's case, he and Alex Johnson, a geology research fellow, traveled in January to the Western Hajar mountains of northern Oman to study and photograph rock formations. They used special camera equipment to take picture after picture of segments of those formations, then stitched them together to create a massive image students can study by zooming in to extreme close-ups.

In a recent guest post on the faculty blog "Academic Technology," Bailey chronicled that field geology trip and the value of academic applications of GigaPan technology.

"GigaPan imagery won't replace field experiences for W&M geology students," he wrote, "but the medium has much promise for preparing students to do geologic fieldwork and illustrating the geology of places and scenes not accessible during our semester-long course."

During an April 14 session of his "Earth Structure and Dynamics" class, a 300-level course for sophomores and juniors majoring in geology, students used GigaPan images to identify and highlight certain elements of the mountainous landscape, including a bizarre instance of a "sheath fold." That's basically a tube-shaped formation created by a process that is both solid and flowing during the collision of the earth's tectonic plates.

"As the mountain side is eroded, we see the sheath folds exposed at the surface and they offer glimpses of structures and processes at work inside the earth," Bailey explained.

The students then performed another task seldom seen in a college classroom: They channeled their inner first-graders by using Play-Doh to mimic the creation and appearance of sheath folds.

Here's the big picture: According to its website, GigaPan was developed in 2008 as a commercial spin-off of research and technology developed by a NASA scientist in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon. Randy Sargent, who was working on panoramic imaging technology for the Mars rover at NASA's Ames facility in California, teamed up with Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, to make it happen.

"Together we thought that the same panoramic capture and stitching and immersive exploration could evolve from a multimillion dollar system for exploring Mars into something much lower-cost for exploring and sharing scenes here on Earth," Sargent said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

GigaPan photographers use special robotic mounts to allow digital cameras – including some of the most common point-and-shoot models – to take hundreds to thousands of individual pictures, then stitch them together to create panoramas.

According to GigaPan archives, it was this technology that was used in May 2010 to take what was then the world's largest digital photograph – a panorama of the city of Dubai – which measured 45 gigapixels. According to Wired.com, it equals a photograph the size of 1,200 highway billboards.

"I'm truly excited with how well the idea has spread," said Sargent, who is now also senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon West. "I remember one of the first things we did with a prototype is capture detailed panoramas of the famous dinosaur collection down the street in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and remember wondering when I'd see others doing this as a matter of course. And, indeed, I visited a month ago and saw two kids pull out their smartphones and capture panoramas."

The next extension of the GigaPan technology is a collaboration with Time Magazine and Google: time-lapse zoomable satellite imagery. It's a project that Sargent said just this week won a People's Choice Webby award for "Best Use of Video or Moving Image."

Bailey has been using the technology in his classes for about three years, but only began taking his own GigaPan images this year. He feels the most important part of GigaPan is the ability to scale from the very detailed view to the very big picture.

"It's very important for earth scientists to be able to understand the geometry of planet Earth, and describing the geometry of things that are three-dimensional and moved over time is actually relatively complex," he said. "So almost any tool that we can use that actually makes that easier I think is a good one. Rather than looking at a static image, we now have the ability in many ways to zoom into stuff, to pan, to tilt and look at things from a different angle. And all of that I think is really useful for helping people see and interpret the three-dimensional structure of the world around us."

©2014 The Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg, Va.)