Liberal Arts student helps develop augmented reality app for anthropology labs

Nick McLean, Jesse Driver, and Mark Shriver created a new augmented reality app that focuses on categorizing primates by facial characteristics, which students will use in Shriver's ANTH 021 Introductory Biological Anthropology lab. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State College of the Liberal Arts student Nicolas McLean, in collaboration with instructional designer Jesse Driver and anthropology professor Mark Shriver, developed an augmented reality app to be used in anthropology labs on campus.

The idea first came to life when Driver reached out to McLean about doing research on extended reality (XR) projects — a set of new technologies changing the way people interact with each other and their surroundings — because she was curious about how they could be used in the classroom setting.

“The problem with XR projects is the lack of information available to research or quickly use in a course,” McLean said. “Everything is so specific since it's such a new field.”

His initial research sparked the idea that led him to create the app. After discussing his ideas with both Driver and Shriver, the project came to fruition.

“All we had were images of primates and their skulls, but the skull is a 3D object with many characteristics that simply can’t be viewed from a 2D image,” McLean said. “We wanted to know if we could use virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality (MR) in a classroom, and this was the perfect deployment opportunity.”

After about 3 and a half months of work, they developed an AR app that focuses on categorizing primates by facial characteristics. The app creates a 3D image of the respective skulls of the unique primate pictured on the flashcard, which the user scans into the app via the camera. By physically turning the device, the user can see different views and perspectives of the skull in more detail than can be seen with the human eye.

For now, the app will only be operated in Shriver’s ANTH 021 Introductory Biological Anthropology lab focusing primarily on primates, in hopes that it will add something new and attractive for students. While the app is currently installed on the course’s iPads, McLean said they want to make it available on various devices outside of the lab as well.

Although McLean’s background in development was useful for this project, he still had to learn a lot of new information about coding and creating applications. He used multiple on-campus resources including the Media Commons and the College of the Liberal Arts Information Technology (IT) team.

In addition to help from on-campus resources, McLean said, “The college faculty and staff I work with have been so supportive, providing me with both time to learn the skills and essential resources such as the iPads and a new computer to create the app.”  

McLean works as a student intern in the Office of Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship in the College of the Liberal Arts and serves as an active member of the Pennsylvania State University Economics Association. He will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in economics and started his master of public policy (M.P.P.) degree this semester, which he expects to complete by spring 2021.

McLean advises other students looking to turn their projects into reality to “be ambitious, get others excited about your projects, be excited about your own projects and most importantly, remember that your ideas do matter.”

Last Updated November 18, 2019