Epic Games backs VR field trip through unspoiled Florida habitat

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Epic Games awarded a $25,000 grant to University of Central Florida information scientist and artist Maria Harrington through its MegaGrants programme

Quick read

➨ The Virtual UCF Arboretum is a VR recreation of the university’s 247 acres of unspoiled Florida habitat
➨ The experience allows users to hike through the university’s real arboretum
➨ Harrington will use her grant to explore new techniques to improve her VR experience

The story

Unreal Engine 4 developer Epic Games has awarded a $25,000 grant to a University of Central Florida assistant professor who has created a VR field trip guide.

Information scientist and artist Maria Harrington created The Virtual UCF Arboretum, a VR recreation of the university’s 247 acres of unspoiled Florida habitat.

The experience, available for download from and use on any game or VR-ready PC, allows users to hike through the university’s real arboretum, which has been recreated from field observations, photos, measurements, drone footage and historical geographic information system (GIS) data.

Users can also access a virtual field guide that provides more detailed information about any object in the virtual model. As users traverse a landscape that ranges from swamps to scrubby flatwoods, they can get a close-up view of any plant they see, and can listen to the sounds of the creatures that inhabit the arboretum.

It was developed in collaboration with Harrington’s colleagues at the University of Central Florida, The Powdermill Nature Reserve at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the multimedia technology programme of the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences in Austria.

Epic Games awarded the $25,000 through its MegaGrants programme. The money will allow Harrington to explore new techniques to improve her VR experience and to potentially broaden the collection to initially include botanical gardens and university arboretums from the American Southwest and Pacific Northwest.

Commenting on The Virtual UCF Arboretum, Harrington stressed the importance of the underlying GIS data: “These immersive models are different than others, because they are data visualisations of the botanical and ecological information. Not only are they photorealistic and beautiful, but what you see is information that represents the data­­—truth—and not creative or artistic fantasy.”

“Much like botanical illustrations of the past, they are a form of scientific communication, ideal for constructing museum exhibits and in support of educational and informal learning activities desired by the public, especially now during Covid-19.”

Harrington has also developed the AR Perpetual Garden App, in partnership with scientists from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which allows users to create a perpetual garden of native Appalachian flora with a finger tap on the surface of a smartphone or tablet.

It’s available on Apple iTunes and Google Play and was named a finalist in the international GLAMi Awards in March.

Image: The experience, available for download from and use on any game or VR-ready PC, allows users to hike through the University of Central Florida’s real arboretum
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