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“This Old Digital City” Virtual Historical Cedar Rapids, Iowa, circa 1900 - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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“This Old Digital City” Virtual Historical Cedar Rapids, Iowa, circa 1900. Shayne Gelo Digital Artefacts, LLC. Joe Kearney Computer Science, The University of Iowa. James Cremer and Joan Severson Computer Science, The University of Iowa & Digital Artefacts, LLC.

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“This Old Digital City” Virtual Historical Cedar Rapids, Iowa, circa 1900

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“This Old Digital City”Virtual Historical Cedar Rapids, Iowa, circa 1900

Shayne Gelo

Digital Artefacts, LLC

Joe Kearney

Computer Science, The University of Iowa

James Cremer and Joan Severson

Computer Science, The University of Iowa


Digital Artefacts, LLC

Marise McDermott and Rich Riccio

The History Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa


Grocery store encounter: neighbors Joan Severson, undergraduate researcher in Hank virtual environments lab at U. Iowa, and Marise McDermott, curator at The History Center

  • Ms. McDermott wanted to do a multimedia project on the history of Cedar Rapids

  • Ms. Severson says “let’s do virtual reality instead”


Use University of Iowa expertise and experience in virtual environments, real-time person-in-the-loop driving simulation, and 3D modeling to create an engaging new exhibit

  • 3D virtual environments as interface to historical archives

  • create 3D virtual reconstruction of turn-of-the-20th-century Cedar Rapids, and let people explore history in an exciting engaging environment, accessing multimedia historical information in appropriate geographical setting

Background: The University of Iowa

A world leader in virtual environments for driving simulation: NADS, IDS, Hank, and others


  • The National Advanced Driving Simulator. U.S. Dept. of Transportation facility operated by U. Iowa. Cost: more than US$ 50 million. Fully operational within the next few months.

  • Most advanced driving simulator in the world. High fidelity motion, vehicle dynamics, audio, control loading, data recording, and scenario (autonomous traffic, vehicles, and other entities) systems. Sophisticated visual database creation and scenario and experiment authoring tools.

  • Use in many applications. Especially driving safety and human factors research: effects of signage, drugs and alcohol, cell phone usage and other distractions, anti-lock braking systems, collision warning devices, heads-up displays.

Hank (

  • Small simulator in Computer Science. Focus on simulator development research and new uses of virtual environment technology rather than very large experiments of NADS.

  • Collaboraration with Ford, IRISA (Rennes, FR), U. Valencia (ESP).

  • Primary current project: collaboration with pyschology researchers on use of virtual bicycling environment for child behavior studies. Children ride instrumented stationary bicycle through virtual town with traffic. Decisions/reactions recorded and measured.

Hank Simulator

Hank and Virtual Urban Environments

  • As part of Hank project we developed expertise in 3D modeling for real-time display. Created virtual present-day Iowa City (one student during the summer) and demonstrated at Iowa State Fair 1998. Thousands of riders over 10 days of use.

Digital Artefacts ( and The History Center (

  • Small company that grew out of the Hank group at The University of Iowa. President Joan Severson (and primary inspiration for and creator of TODC) has an art and theater background, but subsequently earned a computer science degree because she saw virtual reality as a great medium for her artistic skills.

  • The History Center is a small museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Since opening its new building in summer 1999 it’s had about 20,000 visitors and 5,400 students involved in its programs.

The TODC Project

  • Initially: a small project with one large screen. After presentation of ideas to local organizations who might provide funds, including the possibility of bigger things in the future, they said “let’s do the big one now”.

  • Goal: an interactive virtual environment in which visitors can sit it and operate a “time machine” to explore 3D restoration of circa 1900 city. During exploration visitors can activate multimedia associated with significant locations in the environment.

Initial TODC Ideas

Physical Components

  • Three large screens, each 6 feet (1.83meters) wide and 8 feet (2.44meters) tall. 120 degree angles between them. Enclosures behind screens house LCD projectors and mirrors arranged for rear-projection.

  • The “time machine”, an H.G.Wells-ish device with seating for 4 or 5 adults, several controllers (joystick-like “wand”, buttons, a rocker switch), vibration motors, lights, etc. Includes a token slot and LED timer.

Physical components

  • Four networked computers. One master, three slaves. Each slave does graphics processing for one screen. High-end but cost-effective PCs: off-the-shelf 933MHz IBM Intellistations. Graphics cards: 64MB GeForce2 graphics cards in current prototype. At opening in a few weeks, might possibly use Intense3D Wildcat 4210 (higher quality antialiasing, but lower overall fill rate) or GeForce2 Ultras (if we can get them by then!)

Physical components

Physical components

The most challenging part of the project. Of more than 100 buildings modeled, 6 remain standing.

Archivists and others gathered a variety of raw materials

Sandborn insurance maps: provided accurate road, sidewalk, building footprints, dimensions, and function (names of businesses, etc.)

photographs, postcards, blueprints, newspapers

city records and other documents, books with information about colors used in the time period (all the photographs were black-and-white or sepia-toned – we wanted a colorful environment!)

Construction of the 3D Historical Model

3D Model Construction

3D Model Construction

3D Model Construction

Construction of the 3D Historical Model

  • Georeferencing the raw materials, associating images and other information geographic location/maps was important, critical to good 3D modeling, but time consuming.

  • Primary tools: Multigen and Photoshop, plus a little bit of 3D Studio Max

Custom visualization, interaction, and network synchronization software. Developed in C++ and the OpenGVS real-time graphics SDK.

Master processor interacts with “time machine” via data acquisition card (“time machine” is an expensive joystick!) and synchronizes and controls PCs doing the 3D graphics. Master also handles audio.

Center PC, in addition to 3D graphics, displays MPEG2 and/or AVI video associated with locations in 3D environment. (Video, as well as 3D graphics had to be rotated 90 degrees – projectors are on their sides).

The software also controls region-based playback of some narrative audio and ambient sound.

Visualization, Interaction, and Multimedia Software

Visitor Scenarios

  • Free navigation and exploration of virtual environments can be immersive, engaging, and entertaining.

  • Does not always fit with educational goals and time constraints of museum or similar setting

  • Initial TODC goal: 5 to 10 minutes user experiences (museum visitors each given one token that activates environment for a certain amount of time).

  • Initial scenarios: free exploration with enticement to access content. Simple representations of characters at key locations inviting visitor to visit. I.e. access multimedia content associated with the location.

Visitor Scenarios

  • We are developing other kinds of scenarios such as “guided tours” in which visitor movements are more constrained. Our experience shows that not everyone is comfortable with the full freedom afforded by virtual environments. They’d prefer to be shown around. In guided tour scenarios, the gross motion paths are controlled by the software, while the user retains some control over speed and fine path variations.

  • Determining good visitor scenarios will be a very exciting part of this project. Certainly, our initial experiences tell us that we should develop several types of scenarios, some better suited to children, others to senior citizens.

Demonstration of prototype at August 2000 Iowa State Fair

  • Single screen, joystick, 3D model, and multimedia content not quite finished.

  • As in 1998, many users over the course of 10 days.

  • Interesting to observe: people of all ages really liked it, but in different ways or for different reasons. Kids thought it was cool and fun, their parents/other adults like it because they could learn interesting things, senior citizens from the Cedar Rapids area loved it because of the nostalgic memories it evoked.

  • Showed us we need to tailor multimedia content to particular audiences when possible (many children want to “leave” the multimedia content and get back to 3D real-time environment quickly. Video content not enaging enough.

Iowa State Fair 2000

Educational Impact and Next Steps

  • We are very excited about the potential educational impact of derivatives of this effort. We are working to take it out of the museum and into schools. For instance, we are developing software that will by used by area school chilren (3rd, 4th, 11th grades initially) to participate in many of the research, content creation, and even 3D modeling activities involved in creating TODC. One component is map-based georeferencing software that enables associating and accessing content and research results with physical locations.

More Next Steps

  • Bring the city to life by adding moving characters. Related to University of Iowa work on scenario control and semi-autonomous agents for driving simulation.

  • Enable time travel. Develop 3D models and content for other time periods.

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