Topics: College of Fine Arts, University Libraries, College of Sciences and Humanities, Emerging Media

August 3, 2011

Using photos from University Libraries to guide them, designers for Ball State~~~s IDIA were able to simulate the conditions of factory life at the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. in Muncie.
Advanced 3-D technology is allowing Ball State University educators to share history in a way that snags the attention of students who've come of age using the Internet and playing video games.

The Virtual Middletown Project brings to life the early 20th-century Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Co. in Muncie, right down to workers removing hot pieces of glassware from the furnaces. The intent of the project is creating a virtual living history museum like Colonial Williamsburg, said John Fillwalk, longtime head of Ball State's Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA) and newly named senior director of the university's Hybrid Design Technologies unit. The Virtual Middletown Project was created by IDIA in collaboration with the university's Center for Middletown Studies and University Libraries.

Jim Connolly, director of Ball State's Center for Middletown Studies, said he appreciates the project's layered approach to exploring history. While a live re-enactment (as may be found at Conner Prairie, a living history museum in Hamilton County) lets visitors witness life of a specific time period, re-enactors have no way of sharing their research or background materials used for the simulation.

"With the Middletown Project, what we're offering is that same type of re-enactment experience but with footnotes," Connolly said, explaining that a companion website to the simulation will provide visitors access to all the materials — including photographs, architectural renderings and oral histories — used by IDIA designers in creating the glass factory environment.

To create the virtual world of the Middletown Project, Fillwalk and his staff are designing in Blue Mars, a 3-D virtual world platform created by Avatar Reality. IDIA has been developing in Blue Mars technology since beta testing, with past creations including digital 3-D laser-scans of a centuries-old Buddha at a Japanese temple and sculptures from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Fillwalk says the Blue Mars glass factory simulation is a prototype for a much larger project that would allow for the expansion of Virtual Middletown. That landscape would incorporate aspects of life including schools, churches and homes exemplary of those surveyed in Muncie during the 1920s-30s, when Robert and Helen Lynd put the city on the map as a barometer of social trends in the United States with their seminal community study, "Middletown" (1929).

The Virtual Middletown Project, whose prototype was funded with a grant from Ball State's Emerging Media Initiative, is now available for use. View a video tour of the simulation and download a copy of Blue Mars for free at