Downtown gets digitized

Four MU students develop a virtual online tour of The District.
Thursday, June 23, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:10 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Browsing through the posters and clothes available at Missouri Shirt Co., checking out all the ice cream flavors at Sparky’s and perusing the concert lineup at The Blue Note could involve a lot of walking and time, but a project done by a group of MU computer science students shows the potential for people to explore The District from the comfort of their own homes.

Amanda Stiles, Bryan Johnson, Michael Vincent and Vanja Jovisic developed an online virtual tour of a piece of downtown Columbia as their final project for a software engineering class.

Because of time and budget constraints, the group developed only a one-block prototype. Visitors to the Web site can explore stores on Ninth Street between Broadway and Cherry Street.

The Web site includes the stores’ hours of operation, phone numbers and addresses, along with a brief description of the businesses and pictures of storefronts. Some businesses, including the Missouri Shirt Co., allowed the students to take panoramic pictures that offer a 360-degree view of the store’s interior, making it possible to virtually enter the store and look around.

“I love the idea of people being able to enter the store virtually,” said Don Henderson, Missouri Shirt Co. president. “It looks like they did a great job, much better than the (Downtown Columbia Associations’) Web site.”

After completing the project, the students presented the idea to the association but encountered unexpected resistance.

Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Associations, said that the site would be difficult to maintain and would have trouble depicting businesses that operate out of basements or second floors.

The associations’ existing Web site features detailed information and photos of businesses that are paying members.

“We’ve found that people can find the stores without a visual representation,” Gartner said. “It’s one of those icing-on-top-of-the-cake things, but I don’t think it’s going to make or break The District.”

The students have a fan in Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Downtown is an attraction in this community,” Steiner said. “Visuals are so important; they pique the interest. The more prospective visitors can imagine themselves in that destination, the more likely they are to visit.”

Steiner said the virtual tour would be much easier to update and maintain than still photos, but she added that specifics, such as funding, would have to be discussed before the bureau could go any further with the idea.

Scott Southwick, owner of Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream, was quick to encourage the students to persevere.

“If they get a ‘no’ from these associations, they should shop the idea around and take it somewhere outside Columbia,” Southwick said. “They could make it a generalized program so that each downtown area could custom tailor the program to their needs.”

The group’s goals include bringing more customers to downtown businesses, increasing tourism and providing low-cost advertising for small businesses. It bounced around several ideas for its class project, including a tour of Columbia parks or the MU campus, but decided on a virtual tour of downtown after Jovisic recalled seeing a similar project done in Prague by a technical college in the Czech Republic.

“Unfortunately, parks do not look really nice until April or May, and that was too late for taking the pictures,” Jovisic said. “The university already had some projects like this, but downtown needed something like this desperately.”

After going through several drafts of the Web site, the group decided to display a map of the entire downtown on the opening page and allow the user to click on a block or a specific store or use a keyword search to find what he or she is looking for.

The future of the project is uncertain because three of the four students have graduated. The framework for the project remains, however.

“We gave an idea and would be happy if someone recognizes it and involves more people into the project,” Jovisic said. “It was a pleasure to finalize this project at the end and show how things can be done when the right people work together.”

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