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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 8, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 2
Virtual Tour de Force

Team members Ian Miers, Garvi Sheth, Patrick Carter and Joanna Perey high above the Decker Quadrangle.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Students build online 3-D model of campus (digital) brick by brick

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Think you know the Homewood campus? You're about to get a new perspective, thanks to an industrious and dedicated team of Johns Hopkins undergraduates.

The university's Office of Student Technology Services is preparing to unveil version 1.0 of Virtual JHU, a complete, visually accurate 3-D model of the Homewood campus, including its grounds and exteriors and interiors of each building.

This model will offer a virtual tour of the campus and eventually will allow users to spatially browse information about each building's contents and use, right down to the location of vending machines.

The project began last summer when Ian Miers, a junior computer science major, asked a simple question to a colleague at Student Technology Services. "I just said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did a 3- D model of campus?' I thought, Why not?" Miers said.

To his surprise, he found a very receptive audience. A small team soon formed and set out to obtain blueprints of Garland Hall to test the feasibility of such a project. Miers, in less than a day, fashioned up a 3-D mockup of Garland using the floor plans. He said the image was "nothing fancy," but it proved a point. "We looked at each other and said, 'We can do this.'"

Miers and his co-project leader, Patrick Carter, a senior computer science major, enlisted other students to help with the effort, which had received the full support of Deborah Savage, IT manager of Student Technology Services, a unit of IT.

Coincidentally, another group of students, working at the Brown Digital Media Center, had started a project to enter an international competition sponsored by Google to produce a 3-D model of their campus and put it in Google Earth. By partnering with their counterparts in Student Technology Services, they were able to complete it in time for the 2008 deadline.

Everyone's efforts paid off.

Johns Hopkins was one of nine schools from five countries chosen as winners of the 2008 Google International Model Your Campus Competition. The finished 3-D models of the JHU buildings were put online (contest.sketchup .com/intl/en), and the team of students each received an Apple iPod Touch, a Nintendo Wii Console and a Google T-shirt and hat.

The Virtual JHU project was a challenge. The terrain was not uniform, and satellite images of the campus were outdated. The team obtained existing topography measurements and blueprints of the buildings. To fill in some blanks, the students went out on campus with commercial measuring tools. They also took to the sky, of sorts. The team used balloon aerial photography — a simple digital camera tied to party store helium balloons — to take aerial pictures of new buildings and landscape that the old satellite imagery did not show.

A work-in-progress screen capture of Mason Hall shows attention to details such as columns, windowpanes and benches.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

The planning and execution of the aerial photography took about one month, although it did not always go smoothly. Slight winds led to several crashes onto trees and roofs, and on one occasion a BB gun (courtesy of Campus Safety and Security) and crane (courtesy of Facilities Management) were needed to bring down balloons caught in trees. The aerial pictures were stitched together and edited using Adobe Photoshop, a process that allowed the students to create a bird's-eye view of the newly completed Decker Quadrangle.

The majority of the data and models created for the Google Earth competition will be used in the Virtual JHU project.

Due to the immense scope of the undertaking, the Virtual JHU team broke into groups and additional students were brought in. The lion's share of the work was conducted this summer.

Joanna Perey, a senior Writing Seminars major, joined the project in its infancy to add her graphic design expertise. She has since become a technical adviser, helping to train other students to input data and work with the modeling program.

Perey said the experience has been both fun and challenging.

"It's been great, and a lot of work," she said. "It's been a real team effort. It's not just computer science majors; we've been able to bring in a lot of people from different departments who add their own abilities and creativity."

The first version of Virtual JHU will feature a 3-D walkthrough of the Homewood campus with detailed and textured models of the buildings. Over time, Virtual JHU will be populated with information from individual schools, departments and offices. Ultimately, the team plans to add information boxes to every office, classroom and lab, providing information such as classes offered in given rooms, operational hours for various offices and links to the appropriate Web sites. For some offices, there will also be informational videos.

Savage said that the aim is to produce an interactive version of campus that will help people navigate and experience it remotely. It will become "a single point of service" for anyone looking for general or specific information about Homewood. In coming years, the plan is to create similar 3-D models of every Johns Hopkins campus and satellite location.

Miers said that Virtual JHU will be a more user-friendly way to learn about Johns Hopkins online.

"What we have now are maps and lists, which are flat and not always attractive," he said. "With Virtual JHU, you will able to look at the campus the way you interact with it in reality. It will become an actual environment to explore, and a useful way to show the campus. That is the basic idea."

In recent months, the Office of Student Technology Services has partnered with the offices of Facilities Management; Government, Community and Public Affairs; and Development and Alumni Relations to move the project toward completion.

Miers said he's been blown away by the support and growth of the undertaking.

"At one point I wondered, Why did I open my mouth in the first place?" he said with a laugh. "This has moved way beyond our original expectations, and it's been wonderful to be part of."

When completed, Virtual JHU will be found at It is expected to go live at the end of the month.


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