Virtual reality project draws University Hall back to campus

Nebraska Lectures


Posted February 11, 2019 | View original publication

The ill-fated story of University Hall — Dear Old Nebraska U’s first building — is taking a virtual turn.

Through a collaboration with NET, the iconic structure is returning to campus using virtual reality technology. The initial phase of the project — which will be on display in the Feb. 12 Nebraska Lecture — will allow Huskers to don specialized goggles and take a virtual walk around a digital version of the structure.

“For this demo, people will be able to walk around the outside of University Hall and get a feel for what it would have been like to stand next to this amazing building,” said Chad Davis, assistant general manager for emerging media at NET, Nebraska’s PBS and NPR stations. “We plan to follow two tracks as we continue to refine the project in the future, developing realistic textures on the exterior and building out the interior.”

The reveal of University Hall is the first step in a grander vision to build a virtual reality version of NU buildings and grounds up to electrification in the 1890s.

The project grew out of regular meetings of individuals interested in virtual reality and related technologies. In the spring 2018, members of the group — Davis; Heather Richards-Rissetto, assistant professor of anthropology and a faculty fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities; and Steve Kolbe, associate professor of film and new media — opted to pursue the University Hall project, linking its creation to the university’s 150th year in 2019.

“We thought this would be the perfect opportunity to tackle the campus’ very first building and bring it back as part of the sesquicentennial,” Davis said. “It was also attractive project due to the challenge of bringing back a building very few people know stood on campus.”

The team started building the VR model using blueprints and photos of the structure. Their investigation led to Kay Logan-Peters, professor of libraries, and a model of University Hall.

An unofficial historian on campus architecture, Logan-Peters created an online resource that traces the timeline of university buildings (up to 1965) and is the author of “University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” a book that features more than 180 historic images of Nebraska U. Her expertise will take center stage during the Feb. 12 Nebraska Lecture, “Building Nebraska U: The Saga of University Hall and the Origins of the Modern University.”

“Kay has been instrumental in helping us understand the context of this building and providing us leads to make our end product that much more accurate,” Davis said. “Her knowledge and contribution to this project have been invaluable.”

Donated by the class of 1897, the model of University Hall also helped further the project.

Davis’ team — which includes Mike Fields, software development manager, and Patrick Bate, a graphics specialist — used DSLR cameras to take hundreds of photos of the model. Stitched together through photogrammetry software, the photos were combined to form a digital version of the building. The team will continue to refine the structure, using existing records to make it as accurate as possible.

The project is similar to work NET did in creating an interactive, 3D model of a 1945 Allis Chalmers Model C tractor on display at Homestead National Monument.

The work on the University Hall project will continue as the team plans to capture images of masonry and woodwork from similar eras as University Hall. Those details will be layered into the exterior of the structure in a later version.

“Being accurate and getting the details right is part of our PBS ethos,” Davis said. “We want the virtual reality-version of University Hall to be as realistic as possible based on the data we have available. It’s also important to us to show the beauty of what was a much maligned building.”

While it was home to the first lectures on campus, the building’s quality was in question before it opened to students in 1871. The troubled history of the ornate structure includes multiple foundation replacements, structure reinforcements, the death of at least three workers, and the eventual removal of the top two floors in 1925.

Controversies surrounding the construction of University Hall led to, at least in part, the impeachment of David Butler, Nebraska’s first governor.

Virtual reality headsets featuring the University Hall project will operate as part of Logan-Peters’ lecture. Google Cardboard VR headsets will also be available, allowing participants to use cell phones to see the building. Learn more about the lecture.

“The University Hall virtual reality project is designed to be an immersive experience, transporting people back in time to the start of the university,” Davis said. “I think it’s really going to blow people away when they see it.”