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Release: Nov. 24, 1999

UI helps prepare simulated ride through 1900 Cedar Rapids

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- If you could travel through time and go back to the streets of your hometown the way it looked 100 years ago, would you?

Eastern Iowans may have a chance to answer that question next May when The History Center of Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts computer science department complete "This Old Digital City," a computer simulation project funded by private donations. Using several computers and a series of six-foot-wide by eight-foot-tall display screens, the simulation will offer a 180-degree virtual reality model of a 16-square-block area of Cedar Rapids as it looked in 1900. Viewers will control a turn-of-the-century buggy to tour the downtown area, which is being digitally recreated on UI computers from historic photographs, maps and other archives.

The project is being led by UI computer science professors James Cremer and Joseph Kearney, and Linn Country History Center curator Marise McDermott. Computer science students and faculty are employing state-of-the-art 3D modeling, computer graphics, and real-time simulation in the development of the project. Recently, a similar but larger display system was installed in the computer science department to support research projects. For example, Cremer's and Kearney's research group has teamed with psychology professor Jodie Plumert to use virtual environments in evaluating aspects of child bicycle riding behavior.

Virtual historical Cedar Rapids is the brainchild of UI computer science graduate student Joan Severson. She notes that the project is unusual for its interdisciplinary partnership as well as its subject matter. "This project is a rare blend of high technology and liberal arts interests," she says. "The team consists of a variety of people including computer scientists, museum curators, historians, artists, engineers, and students from junior high school on up.'' Severson also points out that museums increasingly are recognizing the need to develop new kinds of exhibits that provide engaging modes of access to historical or other archives.

When the project is complete, visitors will be able to visit Cedar Rapids businesses in an area roughly bounded by the Cedar River, up 1st Avenue to the railroad tracks at 4th Street, and over to Union Station at 4th Avenue. In addition to riding along the streets, tourists will be able to stop and enter local businesses. At the Hawkeye Skirt Factory, for example, they will have an opportunity to enter the building and view a photograph of the work floor while learning about the latest in women's fashions for 1900. Ringing the bell on the carriage will provide the visitor with additional information on hundreds of other Cedar Rapids businesses.

Cremer noted that the adventure in simulated time travel won't end in the year 1900. After the simulation is up and running, plans call for local school students to help develop digital models of Cedar Rapids as it appeared at the start of each decade from 1920 through 1960.