Virtual Arboretum Featured at Global Film, Data Visualization Conference

A virtual corner of UCF’s campus was demonstrated alongside some of the biggest names in the computer graphics industry at the ACM SIGGRAPH 2023 Electronic Theater Retrospective Celebration.

The Virtual UCF Arboretum, an immersive digital twin of nature, was created by Associate Professor of Digital Media Maria Harrington, Ph.D., and was part of the featured presentations in a globally recognized conference that features everything from short films and music videos to data visualizations and behind-the-scenes visual effects reels. This was the 50th conference and was held in Los Angeles in early August.

This year, a reel of seminal pieces representing the best and most innovative projects from around the world—including Harrington’s work—were showcased to reflect and celebrate 50 years of discovery and advancement.

“It’s an incredibly prestigious event,” said Harrington. “I have deep gratitude for being invited to have my work highlighted alongside the best pioneers and leaders in the field.”

The Virtual UCF Arboretum allows users to experience, interact and learn about the actual UCF Arboretum, which is home to 247 acres of unspoiled Florida habitat, through cutting-edge augmented and virtual reality technology. The landscapes range from swamps to scrubby flatwoods, providing stunning images that are pulled from field observations, photos, measurements, drone footage and historical geographic information system (GIS) data.

The entire model is currently being updated using Epic Games Reality Capture and photogrammetry techniques for Unreal Engine 5 to improve graphical and visual fidelity. This work will amplify immersive embodied experiences, emotional reactions, such as calm, excitement, and curiosity that are correlated to learning gains.

 “These immersive digital twins of natural environments are different than others, because they are data visualizations of the botanical and ecological information,” Harrington said. “Not only are they photorealistic and beautiful, but what you see is information that represents the real natural world, data—the truth.”  

Her newly published research paper in Frontiers in Virtual Reality, “Virtual Nature Makes Knowledge Beautiful,” shows the importance of emotions and aesthetics in learning. Designing technical artifacts will help build rich and successful learning environments so that anyone, from a child starting school to a retiree, can access information right from their fingertips.

“This work will help achieve the kinds of learning that enable a transformation of society,” explains Harrington.

As she prepares for a new semester, Harrington is looking forward to what’s next. In the future, she hopes to integrate digital twins of nature with man-made digital twins to enhance the real world.


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