In a virtual reality lab in the University of Virginia’s Clemons Library, with the aid of a headset and two hand controls, spectators walked through University Hall, the University’s now-closed athletic arena.

They could glide across the hardwood floor, then leap from there to the press box, to the scoreboard and to center court, flying through virtual space. They bounded from the court to the highest tiers of orange-and-blue seats, and even took a virtual stroll on the scalloped, cast-concrete roof.

It is in this virtual world that the iconic old building will survive, even after it is gone from the real one.

“U-Hall,” as it is commonly known, served for nearly five decades as the University’s sports arena and hosted many cultural events before closing to public use in 2015. With its role supplanted by John Paul Jones Arena, it is now slated for demolition in early summer.

But before that happens, several UVA students, faculty and staff members are documenting the building with 3-D data-acquisition methods and still cameras. Once the data acquisition is complete, additional processing will create models that can be used for a variety of purposes, including virtual reality tours and 3-D reproductions.

“Once we’re done, you would be able to go over the data and rebuild it down to the millimeter,” said Will Rourk, a 3-D data and content specialist with the UVA Library’s Scholars’ Lab, who is collaborating on the digital preservation project with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Rourk used lasers to scan the interior of University Hall, collecting surface data and measuring the space, using two scanners on tripods simultaneously reading different parts of the interior of the arena. Once he completed the arena, he scanned one of the locker rooms and the area that served as the “green room” for performance artists and bands.

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Will Rourk setting up a laser scanner in University Hall

Will Rourk uses a laser scanner to get precise images and spatial relations within the area. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

At the same time Rourk was scanning the arena, assistant professor Nicola Bezzo, from the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, and graduate students Rahul Peddi, Esen Yel, Paul Bonczek, Shijie Gao and Ishika Paul were using an autonomous robot mounted with laser scanners to collect complementary information on the building. Bezzo, who previously used his robot to produce a laser-scan map of the Crozet Railroad Tunnel, is collecting data on the building with an eye toward recapturing some of the experience of the building.

“We want to recreate the path that athletes used to follow when U-Hall was first opened to go from the locker room to the arena,” Bezzo said. “For this last experiment, the robot started to build a map from the locker room and drove to the arena. The overall effect is a 3-D map that gets built as the robot moves, starting from the locker room.”

The final product of laser scanners scanner University hall
Engineering professor Nicola Bezzo used autonomous robots with laser scanners to record the dome and the seats. (Image courtesy Nicola Bezzo)

As in the Crozet Tunnel, Bezzo is using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, technologies, for his mapping. Apart from mapping the building, Bezzo is working on perfecting autonomous robotic self-localization, which is how a robot determines where it is in a given space.

“We have assembled a robot that has two 3-D LiDARs installed in different orientations that capture data from every direction as it moves,” Bezzo said. “The technique that we are using is called ‘Simultaneous Localization and Mapping,’ or SLAM, and it’s very similar to the one that was used for the tunnel. These experiments create very precise measurements of the building, like a blueprint.”

Building precise maps online as a robot explores an environment is one of the most important tasks in robotics, enabling autonomous navigation, especially in unknown environments.

“Localization and mapping is the basis for the majority of autonomous robot operations: a robot needs to build maps in order to localize itself,” Bezzo said. “The challenge here for us is that we need a lot of features, and possibly diverse features, in order to build very precise maps using SLAM. The arena is very symmetric and thus it’s more complicated to build maps in these environments.”

Final result of lasers scanning university Hall
Nicola Bezzo’a autonomous robot captured the court and the seats in University Hall. (Image courtesy Nicola Bezzo)

Meanwhile, Shayne Brandon, the systems administrator and 3-D data acquisition specialist at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, was also documenting the building, recording it with photogrammetry, which records objects in single-image frames that are then processed with computer software to produce a 3-D point cloud or model.

Brandon recorded the outside of U-Hall with a quadcopter, a four-rotor, radio-controlled drone carrying a camera. He also photographed the inside of the building with a Nikon D850 hand-held camera. Shortly before Christmas, he took thousands of photos of the ceiling of the arena.

Shayne Brandon standing on University Halls court with camera equipment

Shayne Brandon took thousands of photographic images of the building, which he then digitally stitched together. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I am trying to capture the ceiling, the ribs of the dome and the shape of the ceiling and the floor,” he said.

Brandon had already taken 4,000 photos of the exterior of University Hall using the drone and another 17,000 inside. He used a 360-degree camera to record more than 150 spherical panoramas throughout the building and arena.

“I went to any location that I thought might evoke a nice childhood or family memory and some that visitors might have liked to view, but couldn’t,” Brandon said. “I also made changes in lighting and camera height in order to capture the similar views under multiple conditions.”

To create a 3-D model from the images, Brandon uses software running on the Rivanna High Performance Computer Cluster, which determines the surface geometry of U-Hall from the set of photographs, and along the way computes the camera lines and the vantage point from which each was taken. Brandon said the photogrammetry data can be combined with Rourk’s team’s laser scans to create more complete models that can have a variety of uses.


Worthy Martin, acting director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and a member of the computer science faculty in the School of Engineering, said the 3-D data-acquisition methods such as laser scans and photogrammetry record a series of points along a surface and then reproduce the shape in a point cloud, similar to a pointillist painting.

“Will is an artist in knowing where to put the laser scanner and how to put them together, the same way Shayne is an artist in regard to the photogrammetry, which is a different process,” Martin said. “It shows real artistry in a space as complex as those hallways are, because you have to set the scanner so there is a direct line of sight from the tripod to every point you are going to have a data point for. Picking a place from which you actually see all the surfaces is very much an artist’s task.”

Martin said while the interior could be scanned with a laser, the exterior roof could not, since the lasers are ground-based and not able to “see” the curved roof. He said the drone images will be used to reproduce the roof.

“To get a model for the exterior, we are going to have to combine the data sources from several things,” Martin said, “There is an artistry in taking data from the lasers and data from photogrammetry and putting those together and trying to make a coherent, even point cloud.”

The data from Brandon’s photogrammetry will be processed together with Rourk’s laser scan data to produce a combined dataset.

It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia

“This is most useful for exterior documentation, since I can’t scan the rooftops,” Rourk said. “The quadcopter data will provide that information and Shayne can process the two disparate datasets so the exterior documentation will be complete. We’ve done this with other sites, including McCormick Observatory, Alden House, Warm Spring bathhouses and the Midmont house at the foot of Lewis Mountain.” 

Second-year architecture students Dylan Gibbs and Luke Schiavone have also created computer models of the building using the original blueprints and some photos of the building as it exists. Architecture professor Earl Mark is directing them as part of a class exercise.

“The class Professor Mark teaches [“Computer-Aided Architectural Design”] requires students to select and recreate a building using the fundamental lessons from the class,” Gibbs said. “I thought the opportunity to recreate a structure that is soon to be demolished – and having a close proximity to the classroom – presented itself in such a way that would be hard to pass up. I thought it would create a relationship that I couldn’t get if I modeled the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building.”

Gibbs, who works as a graphic design student worker for the football team, concentrated on the inside of the building, while Schiavone focused on the exterior.

“They are not scanning surfaces,” Mark said. “They are recreating complete 3-D architectural geometry in their modeling efforts. It is primarily an exercise in understanding complex architectural geometry, light and material, and, to some degree, its projection from 2-D drawings.”


Rourk, schooled in architecture and architectural history, spent a day scanning the arena space, from the curved ceiling to the hardwood basketball court, and then several days working the other parts of the building, such as the corridors and concession stands and the empty weight room.


After he finished scanning the arena, Rourk plotted out the shots in the lower concession area, mentally measuring angles and lines of sight – moving one round table and a set of chairs so it would not block the line of sight to a support pillar he wanted in his scan.

As the scanners worked, a few students and athletic personnel, as well as some workers from Facilities Management, trickled in and out of the building. Minor detritus – a single red-and-white sock, an orange field hockey ball that came to rest against the base of a wall and a small abandoned barbell outside the back door – mark the building now. A building that once saw its arena and corridors jammed with fans rang hollowly as a single set of heeled boots click-clacked down the curving corridor.

Several weeks after scanning the structure, Rourk presented the fruits of his scans in the virtual reality lab at Clemons Library.

Will Rourk and Worthy Martin demonstrate Virtual reality equipment to a small group
VR Demo. Caption: Will Rourk and Worthy Martin demonstrate how the U-Hall data can be used in a 3-D presentation. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Meanwhile, Brandon has begun populating a website that will enable anyone in the world to virtually explore University Hall.

A performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was the first event held in the building, on Nov. 13, 1965, followed a week later by a concert by the Supremes and the Lovin’ Spoonful. The first basketball game in the arena was held Dec. 4, 1965. For the next several decades, the arena hosted theater performances, speakers, and classic and popular music from the London Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony.

Among the artists who performed at U-Hall were Louis Armstrong; Peter, Paul and Mary; the Grateful Dead; Kool & the Gang; REM; the Beach Boys; the Ramones; and Elvis Costello, as well as stage productions of “La Boheme,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Carmen.” U-Hall also hosted graduations and convocations. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush held a national education summit in University Hall with the governors of all 50 states.

Fewer than half the events in University Hall were athletic, but the University had great success in basketball there as well.

The Cavaliers saw their first 20-win men’s basketball season in 44 years in 1971-72, entering the Associated Press’ Top 20 ranking for the first time. From 1979 to 1989, the men’s team had a 225-101 record, including 12 weeks at the top of the national polls, three Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, two appearances in the NCAA Final Four (in 1981 and 1984) and two in the Elite Eight, and a National Invitational Tournament championship in 1980. In the early 1980s, the team had a 50-2 record under three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson.

Women’s basketball also flourished in University Hall, with the team reaching the Final Four three years running, from 1990 to 1992. A women’s game on Feb. 5, 1986 drew the largest basketball crowd in University Hall’s history: 11,174 people. The more-than-capacity crowd, lured by a promise of free hot dogs and a matchup against archrival North Carolina, prompted the fire marshal to later limit attendance at any event to 8,900 people.

The women’s program produced several national basketball stars, including Dawn Staley, who played for UVA from 1988 to 1992, played on the gold medal Olympic basketball teams in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and was on the 2001 Women’s National Basketball Association championship team. Her Cavalier teammates, twins Heidi and Heather Burge, played for overseas professional teams before joining the WNBA in the late 1990s. Former player Val Ackerman, who graduated from UVA in 1981, became the first president of the WNBA and the first female president of USA Basketball.

The last basketball games to be played in U-Hall came in 2006, before the teams moved across Massie Road to John Paul Jones Arena. While U-Hall continued to be used, the arena itself was permanently closed in 2015 when a leaking roof caused problems.

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications