This story was printed from Gazette Online

Time well spent

By Dick Hogan, Gazette staff writer, October 09, 2000 08:20 AM

Editor's note: Gazette reporter Dick Hogan got a sneak peek last week at the new virtual reality machine at the History Center -- a project that is getting a lot of ''buzz'' for its potential as a tourist attraction. He reports on the experience.

CEDAR RAPIDS -- A time machine showing what Cedar Rapids was like in 1900 will be unveiled later this month.

The virtual reality machine, created in cooperation with the University of Iowa, is attracting interest from far-flung places.

It's believed to be first system anywhere to present a virtual simulation of a historic city setting, says Marise McDermott, acting director and chief curator of the History Center.

The machine will be unveiled to the public Oct. 28 and given a new name to replace the working title of "digital city."

Visitors can climb into a comfortable replica of H.G. Wells' Time Machine, grab a joy stick and cruise around 25 blocks of 1900-vintage downtown Cedar Rapids.

The cost is $1 per five minutes per load. Four adults or six kids can comfortably sit in the time machine.

Rear projectors run by four computers display images of the city onto three large screens.

The project has cost about $400,000, with perhaps another $100,000 of the items donated. The latest donation -- four state-of-the-art computers to run the system -- came from IBM.

The UI's Computer Science Department, under the direction of James Cremer, developed the computer technology to produce the cityscapes. The university partnered with the History Center in developing and presenting the concept. KIDS SHOULD LOVE the virtual experience. Adults, too, given that the virtual downtown drive is motorist heaven. You glide smoothly down the wide brick pavement that was First Avenue in 1900. You meander onto side streets without worrying about dodging other drivers. You do have to watch, though, for "traces" of horse traffic on the pavement.

And there are no booming car stereos -- just light background sounds from overhead parabolic speakers. You hear kids playing, people talking, horses clippity-clopping and occasional train whistles.

And no traffic lights! But watch out for an occasional electric trolley running down the north side of the street -- and those steel support towers for the trolley cables. Keep a sharp lookout before crossing the Fourth Street tracks -- three pairs of them -- because there are no flashing signals.

Steering takes some adjustment. It's a good idea to perfect your steering technique before driving across First Avenue's wooden-deck, steel-span bridge over the Cedar River. You could wind up in the river and would get the feeling you are in the water -- but it's much cleaner water than we have now.

The neat brick buildings, some very large, are impressive. Many are very colorful. Some sport unique nameplates sculpted into the building or roof line.

Joan Severson, 38, of Cedar Rapids, who works for Digital Artefacts in Coralville, digitally reconstructed the buildings using period photographs. The software was written by Shane Gelo, a recent University of Iowa grad, who is only 23.

Only six of the 1900-vintage buildings exist today. Seeing some of them is bound to spark memories for old-timers.

Visitors can see, for example, the grand old Union Station, as well as Greene's Opera House and Hawkeye Skirt Co. By pushing a button, virtual visitors can "go inside" several of the buildings to see and hear what the elegant structures were about.

"Inside" visitors get guided tours produced from scans of old black-and-white photos and sepia-toned images. The photos seem to come alive, thanks to panning, zooming and other effects. Narration provides just enough information to the viewer.

The time machine can be programmed to include other periods of the city's history, something that is planned for the second phase 2 of the project, starting perhaps in January.

Q Contact writer Dick Hogan at (319) 398-8255 or dickh@fyiowa.com

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