Virtual NMU on the Horizon


Faculty, staff and students are invited to serve as “content experts” for a project under way to create an interactive, 3-D game world featuring Northern’s campus. Jeff Horn (Mathematics and Computer Science, pictured) said Virtual NMU – or vNMU – has the potential to be a valuable recruiting tool. He said the online game will appeal to prospective students from the PlayStation and Xbox generation while subtly promoting the university and showcasing its cutting-edge strengths in technology and design.


“I don’t know of another university that has a 3-D campus simulation game and I am hoping we can be the first,” said Horn, who is leading the effort with the help of a freshman fellow. “Successful 3-D game worlds have to be rich in content – terrain, buildings, architecture, textures, informational bulletin boards and kiosks. To make this work, we really need the help of hundreds of folks across campus. Not all of them need to be technically proficient. We need people to supply photos and measurements for 3-D modeling and to tell us where the light sources are in a hallway – anything that will help us accurately simulate the buildings.


“People who have more technical expertise – or are eager to learn – can contribute in areas like programming, 3-D computer modeling, digital imagery, and electronic music and sound effects. So we need a combination of these ‘early adopters’ in addition to those who can supply general content and the ‘big idea’ people who can think of ways to get the most mileage and benefit out of this virtual 3-D version of NMU. Everybody can contribute to this.”

At left is a screen shot Horn provided of the unfurnished conference room (1302) in the New Science Facility, which is still under construction. It gives an idea of how campus rooms and buildings can be simulated in a three-dimensional world.


Elizabeth Sprehe is the freshman fellow who has assisted Horn on the project. She has been working on modeling parts of the university within the 3-D Game Studio software program, mainly the New Science Facility atrium.


“The experience I’ve gained from working with a professor on something with such visible real-life applications is an indispensable education, more than any classes could give me – especially as a freshman,” Sprehe said. “I think this will help in recruiting students who may not be able to visit the university conventionally. They could walk around a replica of campus that showcases some complex student work and get an idea of the possibilities that lie before them if they become Northern students. The project is absolutely mindblowing when you realize all of its potential. If I had known that I would have the opportunity to work on this before I decided that NMU was the university for me, it would have been so much easier for me to make that decision.”


Virtual NMU is in its infancy, but Horn is enthusiastic about its future direction. Each player who downloads the game will become a figure walking around Northern’s campus, visiting different buildings, classrooms, offices and labs. The player will also participate in activities. Horn would like players to interact with virtual tour guides – perhaps even real online tour guides – who would be able to answer questions. He also envisions updated digital photos of campus bulletin boards so visitors can see the current events on campus.


“The thing about 3-D worlds is their dynamic, immersive quality,” Horn said. “Players become part of the virtual environment and interact with things in that environment. It’s flexible, too, because visitors choose where to go and what to do – it’s not scripted for them. Eventually, this might have the same multi-user capacity of other online worlds by allowing visitors to meet up, converse and tour the campus together. We could also introduce more game-like elements such as a scavenger hunt on campus."


Horn compares Northern’s effort to America’s Army, a free download offered by the U.S. Army. Players go through basic training and then participate in various missions. Horn said it has proved very popular. He adds that the striking difference is that America’s Army required an initial investment of more than $7 million. Horn said Northern's budget so far has been about "one one-thousandth of that," or $7,000. Northern has purchased the “basic” 3D Game Studio software and two PCs with high memory capacity. The rest of the vNMU project will rely on volunteer help and innovation. It will also require interdisciplinary collaboration. Horn has obtained elevation and aerial photos. Engineering and Planning provided terrain data and the Geography Department has assisted with converting data for input. Horn said the project could benefit from the university’s established strengths in art and design, GPS technology and other academic programs.


NMU is no stranger to three-dimensional recruitment strategies. The university shipped ViewMasters with 3-D campus images to high school guidance counselors – an effort that earned a national award. Daric Christian (Art and Design) created a virtual campus tour with panoramic photos and a 3-D model of campus. Users can rotate the camera angle and zoom in or out. Horn said vNMU will complement these ideas a carry them a step further.


“Students will gravitate toward anything that gives them an idea of what the university is like,” he explained. “vNMU will be graphic, cutting edge and cool. The best part is that everyone can play a role in developing this. In the near future, I plan to ask folks to download the latest version of Vitual NMU, run it on their laptops or desktops, explore what there is of campus, find something to fix or improve, and then simply e-mail me – perhaps including a digital photo or measurement.”


To express an interest in participating, or to ask questions about the project, please contact Horn at A colloquium presentation, as well as a brainstorming session, on vNMU will be scheduled during the fall semester. Project updates will be posted at vNMU.




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Updated: July 27, 2004