By Robby Korth at The Roanoke Times. Originally published April 26, 2019. Click here to view the article in its original format.

Photos by Matt Gentry of The Roanoke Times

BLACKSBURG — A team of Virginia Tech researchers has transformed Torgersen Hall on campus into the Appalachian Trail.

Using augmented reality, GIS data and 3D printing, people who manage the internationally known footpath can utilize technology to improve its management, researchers and stakeholders said during a workshop meeting at Tech this week. The researchers and trail managers are especially interested in protecting its majestic views.

Earlier this week, the Tech researchers from the Center for Geospatial Information Technology showed off their tools to a group of people from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service.

The goal, according to Peter Sforza, director of the Tech center, is to improve the science and practice of protecting trail resources, for the long-term health of the footpath and to help tourism.

“We can bring traditional techniques with humans and paper and do the technology and data driven study alongside them” Sforza said.

With a team of researchers, Tech showed off a viewshed simulation inside its Viscube, using digital models of the trail and surrounding landmarks created with LIDAR data and 3D prints that can be utilized for public outreach and geographic relief.

How people interpret trail views is important to its maintenance, said Jim Von Haden, Appalachian National Scenic Trail’s Integrated Resources program manager.

About 90 percent of people who use areas managed by the National Park Service, which oversees the National Scenic Trail, come for the views, he said.

“We recognize that the scenery of the trail is among, if not the, most important resource values of the trail,” Von Haden said.

The National Park Service has a lot of data, notes and photos of the trail. However, leveraging technology will be important in actually using those resources, he said.

“We’re trying to get as many brain cells as we can on how do we measure visual resources across 2,200 miles,” said Laura Belleville, vice president of conservation and trail management for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

It’s often difficult to quantify the actual value of scenic views, she said. However, that work is important as stakeholders try to show the worth of the trail for its natural beauty and impact to local economies, she said.

Combining technology with actual work in the field has been challenging for computer scientists in the past. Computer scientists at Virginia Tech might have some good ideas for visualizing elements of the trail, but they might not be practical, said Nicholas Polys, director of visualization for advanced research computing at Tech.

Polys demonstrated how the Viscube can show viewsheds off to those studying various aspects of the backcountry footpath.

Simply coming together and creating a dialogue is an important, those involved agreed.

“We need to get people over the ‘wow factor’ and show that this is ready for serious work,” Polys said.

Next steps, Sforza said, include developing a robust study. He got a good variety of information from trail managers this week and he hopes to design ways to bring augmented reality out into the field.

One way will be to use GIS data, primarily to judge things like distances of landmarks to see what impact construction projects or energy projects like pipelines or wind farms would have on views, he said.

“If we can design a system that takes advantage of the human and the strengths of the technology in the right ways, we can enhance both sides,” he said.