What is Virtual Williamsburg?

Virtual Williamsburg is a cutting-edge digital initiative undertaken by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Digital History Center. The project is a digital re-creation of the colonial cityscape of Williamsburg on the eve of the American Revolution. The first neighborhoods being modeled are on the east end of town—this website highlights these properties. The culmination of the project (which is still in development) will be an online, real-time, interactive 3D facsimile of 1776 Williamsburg.

3D visualization of Duke of Gloucester Street 3D visualization of Duke of Gloucester Street

Virtual Williamsburg’s purpose is to show how the capital of Britain’s most wealthy and populous outpost of empire looked on the day Virginia voted for independence—Williamsburg was a city that encompassed over 500 buildings, and was over a mile long and half a mile wide (about 275 acres). The project integrates numerous sources of archaeological and historical information, providing new insights into the town’s history, appearance, and development. The digital reconstruction will be used to create a range of educational media for exploring the town during this important period in its history and to enhance the onsite guest experience.

Why build a virtual model?

Evolution of the Dickson Store—1776 (left) vs. 1750 (right) Evolution of the Dickson Store—
1776 (left) vs. 1750 (right)

So why build a virtual model when “the real thing” already exists in Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City? For one thing, it is difficult in the physical world to convey just how much the town changed from year to year. In the virtual world, however, sites may be added to, dismantled, aged, or renovated to match the latest thinking on Williamsburg’s historic appearance. Selected properties, such as the Public Armoury site, are being digitally recreated in multiple years.

Secondly, on the computer visitors are able to discover pieces of Williamsburg’s story which are unavailable anywhere else. Some of the historic places of Williamsburg are inaccessible to the public, and some are even no longer extant. For example, onsite visitors cannot get too near the Armoury’s hot forges, explore the attic walkway of the Old Playhouse, or enter the Dickson Store’s basement-level slave quarters. The digital model can never replace the onsite experience, but it can allow access to spaces or viewpoints that might not be possible in the real world.

Finally, besides being a valuable research tool for Colonial Williamsburg’s historians, architects, and archaeologists, the model can assist the physical reconstruction of the Revolutionary City. By visualizing Williamsburg on a computer, we can analyze evidence and test hypotheses before any real bricks are laid or posts put into the ground.

How do you create the models?

Dickson Store—shown in 3D modeling software Dickson Store—shown in 3D
modeling software

To model a site, we begin with a thorough review of the evidence. The review process revisits the conclusions made in past reconstructions and re-examines existing suppositions in the light of new information. As part of this process, we produce a full-scale “research model” using computer-aided drafting software. We model actual geometry, down to the individual bricks and shingles. Usually we model buildings first, adding the correct period furniture and surrounding landscape later on.

Dickson Store—completed model Dickson Store—completed model

Since Virtual Williamsburg is reconstructed to May of 1776, we study the site’s chronological development in an attempt to capture how it looked at that time. During the investigation, any hypotheses are immediately put into effect in the model, incorporating new elements and changing existing ones. Usually, the results of this research confirm the accuracy of our predecessors’ conclusions, with only minor updates necessary. In the end, just as much time is spent in examining the evidence as in modeling. The result is so accurate that it could be used to construct a real site.

Once we are happy with the geometry of the model, we then apply appropriate textures, colors, and lighting. To do this, the model is imported into a software program that is designed for creative rather than technical uses. Some textures are generated procedurally, and some are taken from photographs. Ultimately, the goal is to produce authentic-looking sites that can be used to generate photorealistic images.

Two versions of a window—high detail (left) and low detail (right) Two versions of a window—
high detail (left) and low detail (right)

From the outset, one of the goals of Virtual Williamsburg has been to create an immersive virtual environment where these complex models can be experienced in real time. The highly detailed models are too complicated to use without modification. Therefore, we need to reduce their level of detail. This is a tricky task, as we want to simplify the models without reducing the accuracy, complexity, and detail we have so painstakingly put into them. To meet these two aims, the geometry is simplified into as few polygons as possible. To keep the appearance of the original high-detail models, we “bake in” some of the parts from the complex models into bitmap images. These high-detail bitmaps are then applied to the low-polygon models, thereby simulating the appearance of more complex geometry. The result is a much-simplified model that successfully mimics its more elaborate predecessor. This is a process that is not only applied to buildings, but is also extended to interior furnishings, the environment, terrain, and streetscape—creating a comprehensive, lifelike virtual representation of 1776.