A group of fourth-year new media students at the University of Maine have developed phone applications and virtual games to help people cope with the coronavirus pandemic. This image is a snapshot from Drake Perkins' game, "Shadow Box Theater." Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

ORONO, Maine — Students at the University of Maine are using modern technology to develop virtual games, phone apps and other interactive programs to help people cope with stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of new media students are building their own virtual programs that can bring users real-life support, encouragement or inner peace during the global crisis as part of a year-long senior capstone project.

The university’s new media department looks for ways to explore and take advantage of cutting edge technology that can benefit users, Jon Ippolito, a new media professor who is teaching this year’s capstone course, said.

Students were asked to come up with plans to create products using virtual technology. Then they go through a rigorous process of getting feedback from other professors and their peers and reworking their designs.

Ippolito has taught the capstone course on and off for the last 18 years. Most of the projects that his students come up with focus on animation, virtual game design, digital storytelling or interactive environments.

The range of what students have done has been pretty remarkable, he said. One year, a student who was also a ski instructor made an app that collected drone footage of skiers that could give them real-time feedback.

Another former student scanned small critters like ants and water bears using an electron scanning microscope to create 3-dimensional models of them and translate that into a phone app that let users experience the animals up close.

But unlike in years past, students’ projects this year are geared toward helping users deal with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students respond to what is in their lives,” Ippolito said. “And right now, their lives are incredibly impacted by COVID-19.”

As new media students, they’re thinking of ways they can use technology to find solutions for coping with this new reality, Ippolito said.

One student this year is creating an app that lets users go on self-guided campus tours of the university — allowing them to explore the campus without doing an in-person tour during the pandemic.

Claudio Van Duijn is building an app that helps people design their own gardens using augmented reality — a program that provides users with an interactive experience of a real-world environment. Through his app, users will be able to design a concept for a real-life garden through their phones by pointing their camera at an open space. They can install in-ground or raised garden beds, pick crops to plant that are native to Maine climate and get timely reminders about when their plants need tending.

A group of fourt-year new media students at the University of Maine have developed phone applications and virtual games to help people cope with the coronavirus pandemic. This image is a snapshot of the game, AR Gardens, created by Claudio Van Duijn. Courtesy of the University of Maine.

“It kind of keeps track of everything in your garden,” he said. He also plans to install a function in the app that will link users to sites where they could actually purchase the crops in their virtual gardens.

Van Duijn said he was inspired to make a gardening app based on his own love for gardening. While researching his project, he said he discovered a lot of people have taken up gardening during the pandemic.

“It was inspired by me wanting to take something I love and enjoy and bring it to more people and put a technological spin on it.” Van Duijn said he is hoping to launch the app in early April and make it available to both IOS and Android users.

Student John Baker, is building a website to connect UMaine faculty and students beyond the classroom. Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, Baker’s website will let professors share their personal hobbies, photos, research interests and professional work with students on a single platform.

Baker said he noticed that his girlfriend — who is studying marine biology — had professors who shared their travel experiences with students, which gave him the idea to recreate that for other academic disciplines.

He wants his website to go beyond just professional advertising and networking, though, by giving professors a chance to really connect with students, he said. While still under development, the website could also be useful for online courses, where students don’t get to interact with their professors in person, Baker said.

“Even if it only matters to one or two kids, I think that would be worth it,” he said.

Other students in Ippolito’s course are creating similar programs that support people through the pandemic. One is developing an app to connect students with nursing home residents who may be missing human connection.

Some of the virtual inventions have therapeutic elements, too. One student is making a video game that helps people move outside of their agoraphobia by requiring them to complete real-world tasks to level up in the game. Another is creating a virtual immersive environment accompanied by soundscapes to help people relax.

Other students are creating a program to share stories of sexual assault and abuse. “The projects they’ve created is a testament to the resilience and creativity they’ve had during the global pandemic,” Ippolito said.

The students’ projects are still in development but will be launched by the end of the next semester, Ippolito said. The seven seniors have already earned various awards from the university for their inventions and are expected to present their projects at the student symposium in April 2021.