Researchers create virtual mobile tour of University Park campus

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From the 1915 class gift of the Old Main sundial to the 2013 “We Are” structure, Penn Staters have a rich history of contributing back to the University. As new landmarks and class gifts sprout up across the University Park campus, it’s often difficult for the average visitor to keep track of each gift’s location and history.

Now, a new mobile app created by the Penn State research group ChoroPhronesis in the Department of Geography offers an interactive virtual tour of class gifts and public art across campus.

Upon opening the app, users enter a virtual Penn State museum containing 3-D models of such campus landmarks as the Obelisk. In the center of the virtual space is an interactive map of the University Park campus with key points marked as either class gifts or public works of art.

With the help of mobile device virtual reality headsets like Google Cardboard, users can select points on the map to view 360-degrees photos as well as a brief history of each gift.

According to Alexander Klippel, an associate professor of geography, the group chose to focus on class gifts as a way to connect current and future Penn Staters with the history and pride of campus.

“We started brainstorming various topics that might be of interest to the Penn State community,” Klippel said. “One of the ideas we came up with is focusing on the many class gifts, so we then went around campus taking 360-degree images of these structures and landmarks.”

After gathering the photos, members of the team, like Jiayan Zhao, a doctoral candidate studying geography, used the Unity game development software to compile the 360-degree images into the virtual Penn State map.

To program the app, Zhao collaborated with programming team lead Jan Oliver Wallgrün, a Penn Stater postdoctoral researcher located in Hamburg, Germany. Using collaboration tools like Box at Penn State and telepresence robots, Zhao and Wallgrün were able to work together to program and code the mobile app in the Unity software.

“Not being in the same location as the rest of the team members really hasn’t been a big issue,” Wallgrün said. “I have been communicating with the others and participating in joint meetings via Slack and Skype. For a brief period of time we had a telepresence robot, borrowed from Teaching and Learning with Technology, which worked even better.”

According to Klippel, the virtual campus app has the potential to make the University Park campus more accessible to students across the globe.

“I think this app could help integrate the online learning community into the Penn State experience,” Klippel said. “You could also have international students explore Penn State virtually, as well as have alumni use the tool as a homesick quick fix to revisit the good old days on campus.”

For Zhao, one of the goals of the project was to make the tool available as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to expensive virtual reality headsets.

“Compared to the HTC Vive, a mobile phone is cheaper, more accessible and easier to carry around,” Zhao said. “So creating a mobile app means more Penn Staters can experience the virtual campus from any location and at any time.”

Regardless of how globally distributed Penn Staters are, the new app can help connect current and prospective students, alumni, and fans with a little taste of University Park history as well as preserve the campus for generations in the future.

“As the technology becomes more prevalent, it also serves as a digital archive,” Klippel said. “In the future, these 360-degree images can be part of how we record our environment. So it actually becomes part of the memory of the community as well, not just as a map or series of images, but as an experience you can have in this immersive fashion.“

A beta version of the app is currently available for users to download and test on Android devices.

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Last Updated June 20, 2017