A Trip Back In Time - Ellis Island In A Virtual Time Machine

Young man wears virtual reality glasses.
Bergen County Students Team Up With Rangers to Take a Virtual Look Back At History.

NPS photo

It took two years to develop, and the results have head(sets) spinning in the Great Hall of the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

Using historical photographs, measured drawings, studies, oral histories and other historical research materials from National Park Service archives, students from the Bergen County Academies re-created the Registry Room or Great Hall in a simulated Virtual Reality program for VR Headsets.

Users virtually enter the Great Hall as it would have appeared in the years 1918 through 1924 and engage with immigrants who were programmed with information taken from oral histories in the Ellis Island collection.

The National Park Service (NPS) has partnered with the Bergen County Academies (BCA) for a number of years on a variety of projects and hosted interns from the schools. In 2016 a formal agreement was established between BCA and the NPS for the purpose of providing mutually beneficial opportunities for the enrichment of the BCA curriculum and the enhancement of NPS programs and activities.

“The Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island are thrilled with the results of our partnership with the Bergen County Academies,” said Superintendent, John Piltzecker. “This project, through its creative use of VR technology, is helping us to meet our goal of developing fresh approaches to engaging youth in the diverse stories told by park service sites.”
Rows of chairs and a man in uniform inside the computerized image of the Great Hall.
Virtual image of the Great Hall.

NPS photo

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, students at the BCA began constructing from scratch a Virtual Reality experience for the NPS at Ellis Island. This project spawned an entirely new course called "Interactive Design" created and lead by teacher Scott Lang, which is now in its third year. Using the Registry Room at Ellis Island as the setting, students employ state of the art Virtual Reality equipment and game development software to create a 3D model of this space. The result is an experience that provides users with full 360-degree views of the space the way it appeared between the years 1918-1924. As technology has evolved so has this project. Now, participants cannot only see Ellis Island the way that it once appeared, but they can also "relive" the immigrant experience and interact with people in this virtual world. The current implementation of this project uses the HTC Vive to take visitors back in time.

“An authentic project such as this is truly rare to come by,” said teacher Scott Lang “but thanks to the National Park Service support, time, and resources the students of the Bergen Academies were able to create an experience that proudly stands next to products created by commercial design houses.” The process to develop such an immersive experience required students to collaborate and organize themselves within their team, present in person to NPS staff, adjust the project based on feedback, and of course, problem solve. All the while the students were applying their knowledge of History, Physics, Art, Computer Science, and Storytelling.

Last updated: January 10, 2018