Reconnecting with Penn State’s past through virtual reality

Rachel Garman
September 29, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There’s no question that Old Main stands as one of the most iconic landmarks at Penn State’s University Park campus. In fact, it can be difficult to even imagine the campus landscape without the building’s lofty bell tower and eight limestone columns.

But the recognizable look of today’s Old Main is far from the original structure, which was built in 1863, torn down in 1929 and rebuilt in 1931 as the landmark that stands today.

In an effort to more clearly visualize these previous iterations of campus, a cross-disciplinary group of researchers is using virtual reality and 3-D modeling technology as a time machine to travel back to the early days of Penn State.

Through these immersive technologies, the Historic Campus Modeling Project aims to enhance Penn Staters’ sense of place and University history.

According to project lead Alexander Klippel — an associate professor of geography and the Gosnell Senior Faculty Scholar and Fellow at the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing — the idea for the historic campus model arose out of ongoing efforts to create and update University Park campus maps.

“While the Department of Geography was creating two-dimensional campus maps, our group started wondering ‘What if we create the campus map in 3-D?’” Klippel said. “Then we realized we could take that one step further through virtual reality.”

Bringing the past to life

Before the group could begin modeling and preparing the 3-D historic buildings for virtual reality, Klippel and his team had to first find their source material.

“University Libraries provided us with digitized fire insurance maps from 1922 as well as a large collection of historic building images,” Klippel said. “So we’ve been using these resources to model buildings that, to some extent, don't exist anymore.” 

A few notable historic buildings the team has modeled include the former Women’s Building (which stood close to the location of Burrowes Building), the original Old Main building and a former version of Old Botany Building complete with an attached greenhouse. 

“It's just amazing how drastically campus has changed over the last 100 years,” Klippel said. “With this virtual reality technology, people can go back in time and experience campus as it once was.”

To recreate these circa 1920s buildings, the team uses SketchUp, a 3-D modeling software, to create detailed and accurate historic models. After modeling, the group turns to Unity — a game development software for virtual reality — as well as the HTC Vive virtual reality system.

Thanks to the HTC Vive’s multiple in-room motion sensors, users can physically walk around the group’s testing space to control their virtual tour around the historic campus.

“By adding this ability to move your body around objects and change the perspective by walking around the room, it creates a more immersive and intense experience that isn’t achievable by any other medium,” Klippel said.

Shaping the present and future

Although the project is still undergoing preparations for broader use, the team hopes that in the near future it can be used to educate users on campus’ past while providing context to its present and future.

“There’s a historical perspective that to understand the present you have to first understand the past, but it can be really hard to imagine it,” said Mark Simpson, a geography doctoral candidate working on the project. “So being able to see what was here before in virtual reality is really helpful.”

For Klippel, one of the greatest benefits of virtual reality is its ability to illustrate these environmental changes beyond the constraints of human imagination.

“I think our imagination is limited when it comes to trying to visualize things that are no longer there,” Klippel said. “So while imagining how campus looked without the Millennium Science Complex is almost impossible nowadays, virtual reality is a way to bring these past environments back to life.”

According to Mahda Bagher, a project lead and doctoral candidate in geography, recreating these past environments not only illustrates the changes that have occurred on campus, it lets alumni and current students connect with the Penn State of yesteryear.

“University alumni always talk about their experiences on campus, but the experience for current students is completely different,” Bagher said. “So this virtual environment gives us an opportunity to see how campus has changed over the years while letting alumni reconnect with their past.”

And although we may never be able to walk the halls of campus buildings that have come and gone, Klippel and his team hope to share a little slice of Penn State’s history with all those who have (and still do) call the campus home.

“It's these immersive environments that allow people to experience a place in a way that images, videos and text have a hard time doing,” Klippel said. “Hopefully, through this process, we can inspire others to learn more about the rich history of the campus around them.”

  • A student using a virtual reality headset.

    Mark Simpson uses the HTC Vive to explore the historic virtual model.

    IMAGE: Rachel Garman
  • A professor works with a student at a computer.

    Alex Klippel (left) examines the virtual model with team member Jiayan Zhao.

    IMAGE: Rachel Garman
  • A 3-D model of Old Main in 1922.

    The research group has completed a 3-D virtual model of Old Main in 1922.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of the Historic Campus Modeling Project
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Last Updated September 29, 2016