The Virtual UCF Arboretum may be helpful in supplementing science lessons around nature in a fun and engaging way. The game and the other application are free to the public.

UCF Offers Free Nature-themed VR and AR Applications to Help Students and Those Isolated Because of COVID-19

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

UCF is offering a free virtual reality environment and augmented reality app to help teachers supplement science lessons and provide some stress relief for those isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maria Harrington, an information scientist, and artist, created the applications as a way to advance virtual reality technology while engaging the public in informal learning about the natural world. Her latest research is being supported with a grant from video game maker Epic Games.

The Virtual UCF Arboretum is easy to download as a PC game that allows users to explore UCF’s real arboretum, home to 274 acres of unspoiled Florida habitat. The user can see realistic images and hear birds and frogs throughout the immersive experience.

The AR Perpetual Garden App allows users to transform any space — from a bedroom to a porch — into a realistic native Appalachian flora garden through a smartphone or tablet.

“I know a lot of people, especially senior citizens, are isolating during this pandemic,” Harrington says. “The app offers an opportunity to bring nature into their spaces, which studies have shown help reduce stress.”

The app is easy to use. With a tap on the surface of a smartphone or tablet, a user can start converting their space into a virtual garden by layering different elements. The app lets you see the world the way an expert scientist might imagine it and to experience the wide variety of flowers and plants in a springtime forest bloom surrounded by the sounds of birds and insects thriving on the nectar, fruit, and nuts of that habitat.

Harrington also suggests the game is a good way to help young students better understand the wonders of nature and expose them to basic science concepts.

“The Virtual UCF Arboretum may be helpful in supplementing science lessons around nature in a fun and engaging way,” Harrington said. “It’s a fun immersive environment, like a game but based on high information fidelity and accuracy, that’s realistic and that anyone can use, from a classroom teacher to a home-schooler.

Both items are free and available through The Harrington Lab at UCF’s download page found at https://the-harrington-lab.itch.io/.

Harrington joined UCF in 2016. She is an assistant professor of digital media in the UCF Nicholson School of Communication and Media in the College of Sciences, and she is part of the university’s Learning Sciences Cluster. Her research covers the development of digital media knowledge artifacts from human-computer interaction, user-centered design, and data-visualization perspectives. She’s had numerous papers published in peer-reviewed journals and been a speaker at several national and international conferences. She’s earned multiple awards and fellowships and is a research associate with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Powdermill Nature Reserve. She has several degrees including a doctorate in information science from the University of Pittsburgh and undergraduate degrees in economics and art from Carnegie Mellon University.

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