Church welcomes virtual aid

This is a reprint of a Newsday article written by Brinley Hineman that appeared in Newsday on June 10th, 2022. 

SBU students use tech to create interactive tour 

A computer science class taught by Tony Scarlatos at Stony Brook University is undoubtedly heavy on technology. But, at its heart, the class is civic-oriented, helping students apply the programming skills they learn for greater social good. 

During the course, students consider problems their communities face and ways to tackle them through technology. The university's "benevolent computing course" partners with area nonprofits — which often lack resources — to offer free help with technology projects while giving students an opportunity to discover the good they can do with their skills, the professor said.

One nonprofit that partnered with Scarlatos' class is the Oakdale Historical Society, where a three-student team created an interactive, 360-degree virtual tour of St. John's Episcopal Church, Oakdale's only Christian church and the second-oldest in Suffolk County. The church, founded in 1765, has been deemed "a hidden gem" by the society. With dwindling in-person visitors because of the pandemic, the society hopes the virtual tour will expand the church's reach. 

"No way would I be able to get this kind of technology done. We don't have the funding, we don't have the know-how," said historical society president Maryann Almes, who requested the project after speaking with Scarlatos about another interactive tour his students had created. 

For the project, senior Vivek Mathew, 21, of Congers, New York, snapped 3D panoramic photos of the church, grounds and graveyard to build a virtual world that allows visitors to "walk" through the property. While perusing the graveyard's headstones, visitors can hear stories of those buried through the voices of living history actors.

Mathew, a computer science major, said he developed his own code so visitors can access the tour online.

"This is a story — if I wasn't doing this project — I wouldn't have known," Mathew said of the church's history, adding that he was drawn to the project because of his interest in history.

The class helped him realize opportunities for "computing for good," Mathew said. "I thought, maybe if I take this course, I could think of different avenues of programming that can help me feel more fulfilled with my entire profession." 

Scarlatos, who has taught the course at Stony Brook University for more than a decade, said he was inspired by Georgia Tech's "Computing for Good" graduate course. In recent years, such classes have grown into what he said is an "emerging sub-discipline" in an era where big tech grapples with its ethics. Plus, it gives students an opportunity to refine skills beyond what they can do on a computer. 

Former students have built a program for the Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset, which translated spoken English into video clips of American Sign Language. Students also have worked with the Suffolk County Crisis Hotline to analyze their call volume and better assess threat levels. 

Scarlatos said the program is expanding in the fall to include other disciplines, from social work to jazz studies, and will give students opportunities to work on projects for multiple semesters.