Research focus is on aesthetics in the perceptual ambient array and information science theory as it relates to reality and beauty as found in natural environments using augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), GIS simulations, and new media art to explore the phenomena of human reactions to Virtual Nature. Such tools are used to investigate human interaction of real-virtual environments and impacts on perception, learning, health, and creativity. Such systems influence scientific, human, social, and cultural transformations.

Virtual Nature is the main technical thrust for the design and development of the research program. It is a digital media artifact represented of the real environment, both in quality and accuracy of visual information and data of the real plants. It solves the technical problem of fusing sparse information and data sets of high information accuracy to generate realistic and beautiful representations of nature. As such, virtual nature may be used to study the role of beauty in the human-computer-environment interaction dynamics as it impacts perception, emotion, learning, decisions and actions in humans. These models are constructed in real-time game engines capable of display in AR, VR, walls, and CAVE based installations, as well as integration with various input systems beyond the typical mouse and keyboards on PCs, making several lines of future research possible.

The SEEE Tripartite Model is an investigation into the empirical models with the data generated by the simulations to understand the causal models and the relationships between the design factors of complex user interfaces in these virtual environments on human thought and action. 

Create to Learn / Learn to Create is based on the observation that in the creative process of building virtual nature models, students start to learn about the plants and flowers. Virtual nature models may be thought of as learning artifacts, digital dioramas, and much like the educational impact noted in building a real diorama for a school lesson, so too is achieved with virtual dioramas. Students are required to research data and information, increasing awareness and attention to facts, concepts, and the visual details of the real. I tell my students they must become like Leonardo da Vinci, or Ernst Haeckel, and become so familiar with the plants, to know it so well, so to become the plant. When they start to dream of the plant, then they will be able to create it to the highest levels of accuracy and realism required.

Virtual Nature Projects Delivered to Date:

The Virtual UCF Arboretum(2016- present), project is a Virtual Nature model annotated to work as an educational simulation. Constructed as a large open world, using sparse GIS data sets required for information fusion and domain expertise to achieve accuracy and realism, the data was visualized with photorealism accuracy to match the real environment.  All photorealistic 3D plant models are botanically correct, and each is dispersed by real plant population data to reach parity with the real. The one hector virtual model was constructed in the Unreal game engine. The virtual environment is unique as it integrates a complementary website, a digital media plant atlas on facts and concepts to allow point of interest inquiry at the moment of individual personal interest and curiosity.

The Virtual UCF Arboretum project is an augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) collaboration between the Nicholson School of Communication and Media, in the College of Arts and Humanities, and the UCF Arboretum, Landscape and Natural Resources in the Department of Biology, in the College of Sciences, at the University of Central Florida.

The AR Perpetual Garden (2015-2018), is an Augmented Reality App for use inside and outside Museums to extend the learning impact of real dioramas and gardens. Knowledge and complex causal chain interactions previously locked in traditional artifacts become accessible with immersive data visualizations and bio acoustics reflecting scientific data sets to show two contrasting scenarios - Woodland in Balance and Woodland out of Balance. This Augmented Reality implementation is unique as it is uses the vision tracking features of the most recently released ARCore and ARKit SDKs producing a perceptual experience on parity with reality. The concepts and knowledge are easily accessible at a click of a button to hear the curator’s interpretive narrative and access a complementary website of facts, The Virtual Garden Timeline. The AR Perpetual Garden App was developed in part, as an international collaboration between The Harrington Lab at the University of Central Florida, The Powdermill Nature Reserve at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the MultiMediaTechnology program of the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences, Austria. Undergraduate and graduate students were involved in the production of the app.

The Virtual Trillium Trail, (2003-2008), research project objective was to simulate a real world field trip for testing of digital media design factors and impacts on emotions and learning outcomes. It was a dissertation investigation into the design, construction, testing, and evaluation of the child-computer environment interface and the simulation to support children at the moment of curiosity, with access to knowledge at points of interest, much like an expert naturalist teacher or guide. The research used ethnographic design and empirical investigation into the design parameters and proved that photorealistic, open navigational environments outperform non-photorealistic, restricted navigational environment on knowledge gained, inquiry, and emotional outcomes, due to salient events triggered by salient features in the ambient array of the virtual nature model.  A pilot study showed that the real field trip outperformed the virtual in total learning, but when content is identical, identical learning outcomes were measured and transfer, reinforcement gains indicated that best educational practices are to use the virtual to reinforce the real, not as a replacement.

Dissertation: Harrington, Maria, C. R. (2008).  Simulated Ecological Environments for Education (SEEE): A Tripartite Model Framework of HCI Design Parameters for Situational Learning in Virtual Environments. Dissertation Abstracts International. July 17, 2008. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA.