VR brings the past to life at Greensboro, NC’s Magnolia House

[The University of North Carolina Greensboro’s College of Arts and Sciences reports on an interdisciplinary project to reproduce the experience of walking through an historic building in the 1950s; see the original version of the story for five more images and a 3:25 minute video (also available via YouTube). –Matthew]

[Image: The UNCG team of designers and computer scientists watch as Melissa Knapp ’20 tours the historic hotel in virtual reality.]

Virtual Reality brings the past to life at Magnolia House

Story by Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts & Sciences
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications
August 9, 2021

Combining design, history, and computer science, UNC Greensboro is bringing a piece of important local history to life.

Members of UNCG’s Interior Architecture and Computer Science departments recently teamed up to create a virtual reality (VR) tour of the historic Magnolia House as it would have appeared in the 1950s.

The Magnolia House, located near downtown Greensboro, is a segregation-era hotel that housed such notable African American travelers as Ike and Tina Turner, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, James Baldwin, and Gladys Knight. The inn was featured for years in the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” meaning it was a safe place for Black American travelers to lay their heads or grab a meal during the danger and uncertainty of the Jim Crow era.

Now – through the use of Oculus Quest 2 headsets – visitors can be transported to this notable era in the Magnolia House’s history, when it was both a refuge and bustling hub for Black entertainers, authors, and civil rights activists.

An immersive learning experience

Walking around the hotel, you observe the mid-century modern furniture and décor. Jazz music plays from a room upstairs, its volume changing as you move closer or farther away. You peer off the porch at the Greensboro countryside, which looks quite different from the downtown neighborhood that surrounds the hotel today.

“VR is a great medium to communicate in a way that wasn’t possible before, to educate and bring awareness to historical time periods,” said Dr. Regis Kopper, a computer science professor and one of the project’s supervisors.

Funded by a Catalyzing Creativity grant from the City of Greensboro, the project took three months to complete and more than 200 hours of work – largely from undergraduate students.

Interior Architecture student Hannah Tripp worked with faculty mentor, Dr. Asha Kutty, to create the designs, measuring the inn on site and drawing an architectural model using the 3D design software SketchUp. No historical photos of the Magnolia House could be found, so they turned instead to design books and magazines featuring mid-century modern furniture, lighting, and interiors to create historically accurate models as well as a walkthrough using Enscape.

The designers then worked with computer science student Kadir Lofca and his faculty mentor, Kopper, to transform the designs into the VR experience.

Kopper, whose research focuses on virtual reality, says the power of this medium comes from its immersive quality.

“There is research to support that VR promotes a more visceral response, that it enables you to build more memories than through traditional means of learning because of the feeling of presence you get.”

What’s next?

Guiding the UNCG team along the way was Melissa Knapp ‘20, the Magnolia House’s historic site manager and curator as well as an alumna of the UNCG master’s in history with a concentration in museum studies.

Knapp has already used the VR tour to help educate a group of Dudley High School students about the hotel’s storied past. The VR tour will continue to be used with future field trips and educational programming.

And – excitingly – the VR tour will soon be an optional experience for guests staying overnight.

Interior renovations to the Magnolia House are fully underway, with plans to open as a bed and breakfast once again in fall 2021. The building has not functioned in this capacity since the 1960s, when civil rights and the end of segregation made Green Book sites less relevant.

Though the newly designed Magnolia House will have a fresh, modernized feel, it will still draw heavily from its historic roots. Rooms will be thematically designed around the hotel’s famous visitors – so guests will soon be able to stay in the “Tina Turner Suite,” for instance. Knapp also hopes, with future funding, to add more augmented reality experiences to the tour, enabling guests to “interact” with the Magnolia House’s famous historic figures in the realm of virtual reality.

This is not UNCG’s first time bringing awareness to the history of the Magnolia House, nor will it be the last. New projects between the historic inn and UNCG are already in the works.

“Partnering with UNCG always brings a lot of creativity and new directions,” said Knapp. “You wouldn’t immediately see the connections between interior architecture, computer science, and history, but there’s great value in looking at things from different, interdisciplinary perspectives.”

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