Geography student's VR app offers glimpse into Peru study-abroad experience

Gabrielle Stewart
November 27, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After growing up in a military family and serving in the armed forces as a young adult, Colin Kelly has lived all over the world — 16 different locations in fact — and has seen many amazing places. But when he visited Peru for the first time, he found himself fascinated with the landscape, people and the connection between them.

Now he’s hoping to share that experience with the rest of the world.

Kelly, a senior majoring in geography, is creating a virtual reality (VR) application that incorporates both the scientific and social aspects of his visits to Peru. He first traveled to Peru as part of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Center for Advanced Undergraduate Studies and Experience (CAUSE) 2017 program.

Through CAUSE, Kelly researched the high-altitude glacier-wetland systems of the Andes, which motivated him to pursue his own project. He made a second trip to Peru to gather more data using funding from Penn State’s Student Engagement Network.

Kelly saw VR’s potential to acquaint people with new experiences.  

“Not many people get to travel to Peru,” he said.

To represent the country’s unique characteristics, Kelly hopes to touch on multiple areas of his experience in the app.

“I want to showcase some of the culture, but also the scientific research I’ve been doing as well — for example, how climate change is affecting local residents,” he said.

Kelly’s VR interest was first piqued in his 3D Modeling and Virtual Reality class, taught by Alexander Klippel, professor of geography. At the time, Kelly had been working to determine his project focus for the CAUSE study-abroad program. The class showed the possibilities of VR for geospatial tools, and for Kelly, who previously served as a military intelligence analyst specializing in GIS, the combination was perfect.

“I thought, ‘wow, this is something that you can do a lot of different things with,’” Kelly said.

With the help of Klippel and geography professors Denice Wardrop and Mike Nassry, also in the geography department, Kelly is crafting his app for a wide audience.

It’s intended for release on iPhone and Android systems and will feature a walkthrough of Kelly’s travels in Peru. Employing 360-degree imaging, the app will allow users to view the area and to access contextual information by interacting with specific features labeled in the landscape.

Engagement with the community formed a significant part of Kelly’s time in Peru. To provide them with context for his data collection, he showed a simplified app that required the use of only a smartphone.

“We brought these small apps I created to Peru so we could show the local residents what we’re doing,” Kelly said.

Creating a VR experience may seem daunting, but Kelly aims to emphasize its accessibility to everyone. Kelly hopes his app will encourage other students to craft their own virtual journey for others to learn from.

“With this new technology, the possibilities and uses are endless. And that’s what’s exciting for me,” he said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 28, 2018