High-Tech Meets The Past Via Animated Fly-Through Tours Of Historic Locations

"Fly" through the interior of the Civil War-era gunboat USS Cairo via one of the new videos. NPS image.

There are some places in the National Park System we just can't walk through in person, such as the remains of the Civil War gunboat USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park.

Now, thanks to some high-tech wizardry, anyone can take an animated "fly-through" and explore the interior of the ship—or five other historic locations around the country.

The animated "tours" are a bonus from a project started as a response to 9/11, when the National Park Service recognized the need to fully and accurately document the Statue of Liberty. What would happen if a national treasure such as Lady Liberty were to be heavily damaged or destroyed? Would there be enough detailed information available to make an accurate restoration or reconstruction of the Statue possible?

Preserving Lady Liberty in Digital Form

The answer is now "yes," thanks to a project by architects with the NPS' Heritage Documentation Programs, who are using laser scanners to create baseline drawings of historic resources across the country. Because laser scanners capture significantly more data than traditional, hand measuring techniques, the architects are able to produce 360-degree, panoramic measurements, creating digital images that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

The resulting 3-D model of the Statue of Liberty produced from laser-scanned measurements was translated into baseline drawings that adhere to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Architectural and Engineering Documentation.

Since the success of that project, National Park Service staffers have scanned and modeled hundreds of historic sites, generating documentation that will be stored permanently in the Library of Congress and creating useful products for interpretive purposes, including the fly-through videos. The Heritage Documentation Program collections are among the largest and most heavily used in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Copies of all documentation are also preserved at the National Park Service’s Technical Information Center for internal use.

New Technology Saves Time and Provides Superior Results

“What might have taken us two months to measure by hand we can now do in two weeks,” marveled Dana Lockett, Architectural Project Manager with the Heritage Documentation Programs. “With this much data, we’re able to produce imagery at levels of detail that we simply weren’t able to before.”

“This project serves an important preservation function – we’re using this data to create the permanent records we need of America’s historic engineering resources,” said Richard O’Connor, Chief of the Heritage Documentation Programs. “But this also serves an interpretive function by providing our national parks and national historic landmarks an additional tool with which to share the experience of these sites.”

Video Fly-Throughs Are a Bonus from the Project

The video "tours" are an offshoot of the documentation project, and they create a high-tech opportunity for virtual visitors to experience park resources in a manner that's simply not available as a hands-on experience. Using both sophisticated technology and age-old engineering techniques, the NPS crew has produced highly accurate, animated videos of some America’s historic engineering and industrial resources.

One example comes from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where real-world visitors can take a tour that points out a zig-zag network of rickety wooden stairs that in years past provided access to part of the cave. Due to their condition, the stairs have been closed to use since the 1950s, so modern-day visitors can only view them from a safe distance. Now, thanks to the new video, anyone can traverse the route via the "fly-over" animation shown below.

Another fly-through features the interior of the USS Cairo at Vicksburg. Visitors can view the remains of the ship, which were pulled from the muddy bottom of the Mississippi River in the 1950s, but only from a distance. The new video now allows a peek at what's inside.

A total of six videos are now available online, including the Space Shuttle Flight Control Room at the Johnson Space Center and a CCC-era dining hall at Prince William Forest Park. Historic Castle Pinckney is one of only three surviving American "castles," a rare form of circular fort based on French precedents, and the animation gives you a view of the fort that otherwise would only be possible if you rented a helicopter!

You can view any or all of the videos at this link. If you're not an experienced YouTube user, here's a hint : Click on the "full screen" icon in the far bottom-right corner of the video.

"Fly" to Places You Can't Walk

“Our mission is to help people learn about our nation’s great natural and historic objects and sites,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said of the animated fly-through videos. “These videos make it possible for people to visit sites that aren’t open to the public or that they just wouldn’t be able to get to in person.”

So, fasten your virtual seat belts and take a flying trip through some interesting locations from America's past...and if you're subject to vertigo, get a good grip on the arms of your chair!