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Release: Oct. 27, 2000

UI helps build virtual tour of 1900 Cedar Rapids

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- If you've ever wanted to travel back to the Cedar Rapids of 1900, your time has arrived.

That's because "This Old Digital City," a real-time, interactive virtual environment project funded by private donations and created by Digital Artefacts, The History Center of Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts computer science department, opens to the public on Saturday, Oct. 28 at The History Center, 615 First Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids.

Using several computers and a series of six-foot-wide by eight-foot-tall display screens, the 3D simulation offers a 180-degree virtual reality model of a 25-square-block area of Cedar Rapids as it appeared in 1900. Visitors sit in a replica of H.G. Wells' Time Machine where they can take a five-minute tour of the downtown area, digitally recreated from historic photographs, maps and other archives on computers donated by IBM.

From the Time Machine, visitors can roll past Cedar Rapids businesses located 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. They can hear the sounds of the city, including children at play, horses clip-clopping on the cobblestone streets, and a train whistle. If a particular site looks interesting, visitors can stop and enter a local business. Once inside the Hawkeye Skirt Factory, for example, visitors can view a photograph of the people and machines located on the old work floor while hearing a narration about the latest in women's fashions for 1900. Also, additional information is available on hundreds of other Cedar Rapids businesses.

"This Old Digital City is a blend of high technology and liberal arts by a team composed of computer scientists, museum curators, historians, artists, engineers, and students from junior high school on up,'' says Joan Severson. A Cedar Rapids native and UI computer science graduate student, Severson is responsible for creating the project, largely through digital recreations of the buildings from old photographs. Although her UI training and her knowledge of computer graphics gave her the tools to do the work, it was a lucky encounter that led to the creation of the Digital City.

"Just by chance one day I ran into a friend at the grocery store and congratulated her on her new job at the local history center," Severson recalls. "My friend told me she was planning to display flip-over pictures on historical Cedar Rapids, and I said, 'Why not just build a 3D model of how it used to look?' She asked, 'You can do that?'"

Severson, who now works at the firm she founded, Digital Artefacts, located at the UI's Oakdale Campus, says she hopes to digitally recreate other cities in the future, all the while serving as a role model for women who aspire to run a high tech business.

As for Marise McDermott, chief curator of The History Center and the woman Severson met in the grocery store, the grand opening of the This Old Digital City can hardly come soon enough.

"We've been working about 18 months, and we're excited to see how the public will interact with this environment," McDermott says. "This is just the beginning for us, as the public will tell us what they like about this interactive learning lab and we will grow and change."

This Old Digital City is being led by UI computer science professors James Cremer and Joseph Kearney, who developed the technology to reproduce the images. Also, UI computer science students and faculty used state-of-the-art 3D modeling, computer graphics, and real-time simulation in developing the project. The project also has academic and research applications. A similar but larger display system is located in the UI computer science department to support research projects, including one in which Cremer's and Kearney's research group is teamed with psychology professor Jodie Plumert to use virtual environments in evaluating aspects of child bicycle riding behavior.

What's in store for the future of the Digital City? It could be more trips back to the past, as Cremer says that 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.