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Student-Designed Augmented Reality App Expands THON Magic

During THON, the Bryce Jordan Center becomes a cacophony of noise, activity, and color that immediately engulfs attendees, volunteers, and dancers as soon as they enter the concourse.

Yet this exciting environment vanishes almost immediately outside the doors of the event’s beating, circular heart before it reaches many of the people who inspire its frantic energy.

A team of student developers and a pair of THON Media Relations Captains have found a way to extend the magic to the Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania, using augmented reality technology.

THON Media Relations captains Katherine Finneran and Anne Papandreas worked alongside a team of student developers to design THON AR, an iOS app that allows users to bring still-image posters of THON to life through their mobile device.

“Over the summer I thought more about being a THON captain and how this forward-moving technology could really benefit THON,” said Finneran, who first interacted with AR as an intern with the Showtime Network last summer.

Finneran teamed up with Papandreas, and together the two formed a team of six developers to code their vision. Despite their computer science and engineering backgrounds, none of the team members had prior experience in developing AR programs.

The app interacts with still images to display interactive videos and icons. (Photo courtesy of THON).

“It was something we all had to pick up sort of on the fly,” student developer Tyler Spagnolo said. “All of the learning was pretty much while we were doing it, it wasn’t like we took a course beforehand.”

The team initiated a three-stage process of brainstorming, forming a specific vision for the program, and then writing the app, using the coding language Swift to create a clean and functional iOS app. Representatives from Penn State’s AI Alliance reportedly served as faculty advisers for the program.

THON AR offers several unique features. Users can point their device at a pre-coded image on a wall or floor poster to unlock video content from events such as the THON 5K and Family Carnival, or blow virtual bubbles into their surroundings through the app. The program also includes tours and how-to videos narrated by THON’s executive directors, including one segment that teaches this year’s line dance.

Users can also project a 3D Four Diamonds logo onto a flat surface in front of them, and then tap each of its logos for an informational pop-up.

Spagnolo said the team wanted to allow children at Hershey Medical Center that weren’t able to get to THON to “feel like they had somebody out there that was caring about them as much as everybody else at THON.”

Finneran, Spagnolo, and their team visited the Penn State Children’s Hospital last week to roll out and explain the inner workings of the app to Four Diamonds representatives, and planned the placement of interactive posters on the third and fourth floor of the hospital.

The team also said the app would be used during the hospital’s annual THON watch party, and more posters were already placed in the BJC’s Shape the Moment Hallway Friday night.

In addition to making THON more accessible, the team also hoped to increase THON’s media exposure and catch the attention of large technology companies through the use of new programs in the hopes of winning their support for THON.

Spagnolo said that the team spoke with representatives from IBM with the goal of incorporating the company’s Watson technology into its AR project. Talks broke down when the two parties found that IBM’s software wasn’t properly compatible with THON AR’s use of Swift. But Spagnolo said the team was glad to be recognized by one of the world’s largest technology companies as helping to “draw attention to THON from a space that’s not traditional.”

THON AR-compatible posters lined the BJC’s Shape the Moment Hallway Friday.

“It’s just an incredible opportunity and I think everyone should have the opportunity to be able to experience THON, especially the kids that we’re doing this for,” Finneran said.

THON AR marks a starting point for the incorporation of further emerging technology in the future.

“This year is really just setting a precedent for future years,” Finneran said.

“Where I specifically see it going is having this be the cornerstone of THON weekend at Hershey Medical Center to the point where kids are coming directly for the app, to be immersed in the fun of THON, but not directly there,” added Spagnolo.

Spagnolo, who works for local startup Aspire, said he jumped at the opportunity to apply his skills to a philanthropic effort.

“A lot of times you get these opportunities to do things like startups, to run a business, different projects in class where, you know, it’s for your learning,” he said. “But oftentimes the most rewarding things are how you can help out other people.”

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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