Enabled by virtual reality technology, visitors to the recent Bluebonnet Festival in Chappell Hill, Texas journeyed to the town’s past by exploring an historic Texas building that was demolished more than a century ago. The building was recreated as an immersive virtual model by Siva Ramadoss, a Texas A&M Master of Construction Management student.
The building’s main tenant was Soule University, a Methodist-affiliated institution that closed in 1888. During the Central Texas building’s 1861-1911 lifespan, it also hosted a Confederate hospital, Chappell Hill Female College, a public school and a branch of Galveston Medical College and Hospital.
In addition to seeing a 360-degree view of the three-story brick structure’s interior and exterior, users equipped with virtual reality goggles “walked” throughout the structure on an omnidirectional treadmill that Ramadoss synced with the digital model.
The digital rendering of the bygone building provides a new, compelling way to learn about history, he said.
“People can’t get the same understanding of a building by reading descriptive text and looking at photographs,” said Ramadoss, who created the model as his final study project. “As they explore the virtual model, viewers viscerally experience the structure’s architectural space and design concepts of a past era.”
Ramadoss developed his model specifically for public use with members of the Chappell Hill Historical Society. There have been similar, digital reconstructions of buildings, but these renderings, he said, have remained in the academic domain.
The project, funded by the Texas A&M Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts, began when Thomas Stevens, a member of the Chappell Hill Historical Society, asked Julian Kang, Texas A&M associate professor of construction science, if the Soule University building could be recreated as a digital 3-D model.
Kang connected Ramadoss with the historical society and served as his advisor during the project.
Because no architectural drawings of the building exist, Ramadoss created the model by looking at photos of its exterior, visiting buildings in the town from the same time period, and consulting documents housed in the historic society’s museum that describe the building.
Ramadoss used the information to create virtual models of the building’s interior and exterior in Autodesk Revit, a building information modeling application, and then created the model’s spatial elements with Unity 3-D, content creation software often used to develop video games.
To further immerse viewers, he created an audio track describing the building through the computer-generated voice of Francis Mood, the first president of Soule University, as well as other characters drawn from the school’s era. On second floor of his virtual model, Ramadoss included a virtual pianist who performs in the school’s auditorium.
The Chappell Hill Historical Society is currently seeking funds to permanently install the model and supporting VR hardware in its museum.
Since its debut at the Bluebonnet Festival, Ramadoss’ Soule University model has been showcased in the Department of Construction Science’s BIM CAVE. Among the VR spectators were students from the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture
“They learned this kind of rendering can help students learn about history and culture,” said Ramadoss.
Others who’ve engaged the virtual reality experience include Charles Schwartz, chairman of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, who virtually trekked through the rendering in his Chapell Hill home.
The project garnered Ramadoss a runner-up award in the graduate student category of last fall’s Three Minute Thesis Competition hosted by the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies.