By Madeleine Mulford |
December 6, 2022

Imagine walking down the main street of the town you grew up in. The scenery likely recalls a range of memories and community lore. Now, imagine that those memories could be re-experienced and shared with others, showing your kids the town you grew up in, exactly the way it was when you lived there.

Thanks to an innovative collaboration between history professor Lori Walters and modeling, simulation and training professor Joseph Kider, virtually visiting a historical location is possible.

In 2023, Walters, Kider and a team of researchers at UCF will release a test pilot for their project MemoryScan: Humanizing Digital Twin Environments. The project features a virtual drive through Cocoa Beach, Florida, from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the town was the epicenter of America’s space program. Once fully developed, the technology could be applied to any place in recallable history – from sunset boulevard in the 1960s to a small community in the Midwest.

Space-age Cocoa Beach’s virtual twin was re-constructed through interviews with participants who lived in the town during that era. These interviews, also known as oral histories, were collected using devices to track eye and hand movements, cameras, GPS and audio recordings to paint an immersive picture of a past community and people’s memories of it. These oral histories will ultimately be housed in a UCF database for future historical research.

If widely replicated, the project could help revolutionize how future generations learn about the past. Instead of reading books or watching lectures, history students could go back in time, virtually – second-handedly experiencing the memories and emotions of past inhabitants while moving through a place in history.

“You never know what tidbit of information a historian needs to complete their research,” says Walters, “A memory that you may think is insignificant might be just the thing that they’re looking for. That’s why it’s important to preserve the history of these communities. Because when the people who lived through that time are gone, humanity as a whole has lost something important.”

The idea for MemoryScan began with Walter’s quest to restore a historically significant building, and a woman named Vivian Lindauer who worked at the Cocoa Beach Glass Bank.

“The Cocoa Beach Glass Bank was a very important structure in relation to the history of the community,” says Walters. “When it was built in 1961, the building’s space-age look spoke volumes about what they believed about the future of Cocoa Beach as a bedroom community of the space missile industry, right between the Patrick Air Force base itself, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and ultimately, NASA Kennedy Space Center to the north.” In 2015, Walters visited the Cocoa Beach Glass Bank to conduct a laser scan of the structure before its demolition.

As a public historian, much of Walters’ work involves digitally scanning historically significant buildings before they are destroyed. But this preservation of history goes beyond the building itself – Walters also interviews people who had personal involvement with the building’s history. The goal, she says, is to provide future generations with a complete understanding of a building’s significance.

Walters is particularly interested in Space-Age Florida, an era closely tied to the existence of UCF, which was founded in 1963 to support America’s mission to put humans on the moon. The Cocoa Beach Glass Bank was a cornerstone of the Space-Age era and represented the bond people had with the community of Cocoa Beach.

While conducting interviews with people connected to the Glass Bank during the 1960s and 70s, each person delivered the same response: “you need to talk to Vivian.” It was widely known that she had worked at the Glass Bank during that time and was a pillar of the community. But no one seemed to know her last name, or where to find her – Walter’s only hint was that Vivian still worked at a bank in town.

“So, I started my search at the first bank within the Cocoa Beach city limits,” says Walters. “I walked in, and I asked the individual at the desk, do you have someone by the name of Vivian working here? And she indicated, yes, we do, and she pointed me in the direction of her office. I walked over, and I said – I hate to bother you, but by any chance, did you work at the Glass Bank? She says yes. And I was dumbfounded.”

The two began to chat, and over time, they developed a close friendship. It wasn’t long until Walters discovered that Vivian’s memory of Cocoa Beach’s history was exceptional.

“I asked her a casual question about one of the nightclubs in Cocoa Beach in the ‘60s,” Walters says. “She closed her eyes, and she went up State Road A1A, heading north on Motel Row. I could see that she was going through every building in her mind. She was telling me stories about each one until she got to the building that I had inquired about. I thought to myself, that is a fascinating way to do oral history.”

After her talk with Vivian, Walters got the idea to digitally scan downtown Cocoa Beach, by driving down the town’s main street and conducting interviews of participants as they physically moved through the space – something before never done when collecting oral histories. Using the knowledge gained through the interviews, researchers would recreate buildings and objects from 1960s Cocoa Beach, like Space-Age Signs and Pinkie the Elephant (a large sculpture in front of Lee Caron’s Carnival Club). It was then that Walters contacted Kider to make the idea a (virtual) reality.

“I said, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could create an opportunity where people could visit Cocoa Beach through a virtual, head-mounted experience, and record their recollections as they move through the community?” Walters said.

Langan Engineering agreed to assist by using their Leica Pegasus: Two Mobile Sensor Platform with Walters, Kider, and a team of UCF researchers to virtually scan eleven kilometers of Cocoa Beach. Internal grants from UCF helped Walters and Kider to develop the technology to recreate these structures virtually. Most recently, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded a grant that will allow MemoryScan to become an even more immersive experience.

This virtual preservation of a community and its history, Walters says, could be recreated at any location. The possibilities are endless.

“The most important thing about this project is that while we’re focusing on Cocoa Beach, this could be done anywhere,” Walters says. “Every community has a central strip that has a wonderful story to tell. And every community has somebody like Vivian. The goal is to catch the memories of these people before they pass on because the loss of any individual is the loss of a memory bank, an encyclopedia of knowledge. And we must record that encyclopedia of knowledge before it’s too late.”

For people displaced from their hometowns, or who have had their communities destroyed due to war or natural disasters, MemoryScan could preserve those places, and their significance to human life, in perpetuity. Researchers and future generations of students would then have the chance to learn more about life in the past.

Without knowledge of history, we are stumbling in the dark, deprived of the context necessary to orient ourselves in the present. The more we understand about the past, the more we become connected to one another and understand our unique place in the world. Every person, and every memory, represents an important piece of that story.

This story was also covered by Robert Stephens for UCF Today.