For Colonial Williamsburg, history is going virtual

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December 2, 2008

12:28 AM

In three years, a walk to your computer could bring you closer to Colonial Williamsburg than a walk down Duke of Gloucester Street.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia have teamed up to create Virtual Williamsburg, a digital replica of Williamsburg in 1776.

The first phase of the project, which has received a $943,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will model the interiors and exteriors of five key buildings from the east end of town: the Douglass Theater, the Capitol, the Public Records Office, the coffeehouse site — actually a store and residence in 1776 — and the Raleigh Tavern. The first phase will also model the exteriors of an additional 23 buildings along DoG Street.

The Douglass Theater, which no longer stands, is the first building to be completed. As an eighteenth century playhouse, the Douglass Theater can be reconstructed in the virtual realm more accurately than if it were to be physically reconstructed because of restrictive modern building codes.

“We’ve got things like air conditioning and [a] modern fire code, but they’re things we can address in the virtual world that we simply can’t in the physical reconstruction,” project manager and Director of the Center for Digital History Lisa Fischer M.A. ’01 said.

Some of the models, such as the still-standing Public Records Office, will be based on three-dimensional laser data capture of the physical buildings, while buildings that no longer exist or changed structurally since 1776, such as the Douglass Theater and the Capitol, will have to be hand-made from archaeological and architectural records. The image-based models will be accurate to three millimeters while the record-based models will be as accurate as the best historical hypotheses.

The Capitol building today wasmodeled after a pre-1747 version rather than the version that stood in 1776, when the virtual recreation is set.

Virtual Williamsburg, Fischer said, will be useful to the public and to academics.

“In addition to being interesting to the public, and something they can use, it’s also going to be a tool for scholars to use to learn about the town,” she said. “It’s a new way for us to connect up information that right now is in a lot of disparate places.”

Furthermore, the virtual models will give historians a convenient method to carry out research.

“There are things that, by creating a virtual model of [a building], we can actually test. We can look at crowds and how many people you can actually get in [to a building],” Fischer said. “We can create [a virtual building] as accurately as we can, but that’s not something we can necessarily do in a physical construction. We could get close, but there are things we would have to do to meet modern building codes.”

According to Fischer, possible public applications of Virtual Williamsburg include handheld devices to accompany tourists, online videos and even interactive modules.

“We could do something like Second Life where you could actually have avatars in there, you could actually interact — meet Thomas Jefferson on the street,” Fischer said.

Director of the U.Va. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities Bernard Frischer returned last week from two press conferences in Rome involving a similar project he organized called “Rome Reborn,” a virtual recreation of 7,000 buildings in Rome circa 320 A.D., which has just been published on Google Earth. He thinks Virtual Williamsburg could eventually be published on Google Earth as well.

“The project is not aimed at Google Earth in the first instance, but once the 3D model is finished — which will doubtless take at least three to four years — we can see about publishing a version of it there,” Frischer said.

While the first phase should take three years, Frischer predicts that a complete model of Virtual Williamsburg could take five to ten years, depending on funding.

“The desire to do the project is there, the know-how is there, the experience [is there], and so the limiting factor is simply money,” Fischer said. “Right now we’re going to have two modelers full-time working on this for the next three years. If we could have ten modelers working on it for the next three or four or five years, we could do the whole thing.”

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