Students using augmented reality to bring THON to Penn State Children's Hospital

Members of the augmented reality team for THON include students from three different colleges at University Park. Front row, from left: Tyler Spagnolo, Zack Deible and Sydney Wehn. Back row, from left: Isabelle Biase, Ruchi Patel, Anne Papandreas, Katherine Finneran and Kevin Gardner. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What can a few people do to make a difference for many others?

When those people are Penn State students, it’s a lot. Katherine Finneran added her name to the seemingly ever-growing list of community minded and motivated Penn State students with an idea she formed last summer and made a reality in recent months.

Finneran, a senior public relations major who completed a summer internship with Showtime Networks, noted the company’s use of augmented reality (AR) in some cases and wondered about its possible implementation in conjunction with the Penn State Dance Marathon. 

A media relations captain for THON this year, Finneran thought AR might be a way to bring THON to the children battling pediatric cancer at Penn State Children’s Hospital who are unable to attend the event Feb. 15-17 at the Bryce Jordan Center. She previously served on the donor/alumni relations and dancer relations committees for the student-led philanthropic event. 

“Pairing technology with the largest student-run philanthropy in the world?” Finneran asked. “It seemed like a perfect combination.”

Finneran’s THON co-captain, Anne Papandreas, a sophomore biobehavioral health major, teamed up with Finneran to lead the project. Papandreas opened the door to six talented students from the College of Engineering and the College of Information Sciences and Technology who had AR experience.

“They were excited about taking on the project,” Finneran said. “They’re full-time students just like me, but they were more than willing to help and jumped on the idea. I have so much respect for people who could create something like this and bring it to the children who are unable to attend. All these people, coming together? It’s exciting and special.”

The six students who designed the effort were: senior Ruchi Patel (industrial engineering), junior Tyler Spagnolo (computer science), sophomore Isabelle Biase (computer science), sophomore Zack Deible (data science), sophomore Kevin Gardner (computer science), and sophomore Sydney Wehn (applied data sciences).

Biase and Spagnolo were first inspired to assist others with technology when they created a tool using artificial intelligence to help Penn State students find a potential path to their dream job as part of the Nittany AI Challenge. Their team, Aspire, went on to finish as one of the top three teams for 2018.

“My biggest motivation for pursuing a career in computer science is to create technology that empowers people,” Biase said. “With this AR application for THON, I also hope to make an impact by using technology to support THON’s mission.”

Spagnolo said the Nittany AI Challenge led him to take on projects with a powerful mission like the AR application for THON.

“The experience inspired me to want to make a difference in the lives of others and instilled in me the self-belief that’s necessary to do it,” Spagnolo said. “I had always felt like there were so many amazing and impactful things going on here at the University, but the challenge was the first thing that turned that thought into a reality.”

After months of development, the overall AR group plans to bring its efforts to fruition in February.

The AR test run will include posters on the walls of Penn State Children’s Hospital, voice recognition technology and more. Specifically, when a user points an iPad at the posters, it will bring to life aspects of THON that other children enjoy in person. That includes blowing bubbles on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center and learning the line dance.

“It’s sometimes hard for people to understand the magic of THON if they’ve never experienced it at the BJC,” Finneran said. “However, this augmented reality app helps change that by giving the patients and their families an opportunity to feel the energy that comes alive during the 46-hour dance marathon.”

Last Updated August 06, 2019