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Senate Virtual Tour Project Lead Katie Graham (left) and Carleton Immersive Media Studio Director Stephen Fai gather photogrammetric data in the Senate antechamber.


Take the virtual tour

It’s Monday morning and the Carleton Immersive Media Studio, a research unit within Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, is bustling.

The lab’s director, Professor Stephen Fai, is consulting with engineering master’s candidate Abhijit Dhanda, who’s refining a three-dimensional digital model. Dhanda rotates the view around a stone carving of King Edward VII, Canada’s monarch when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905. The model is so detailed you can see shadows playing across the chisel marks. PhD student Katie Graham is just back from Parliament Hill and is downloading gigabytes of photogrammetric and laser-scanning data.

A technological miracle is taking place here. While Parliament Hill disappears behind scaffolding, one building at a time, a virtual Parliament Hill is taking shape in these computers.

Canadians can get their first look at the result. The Senate Virtual Tour, an online exploration of the Red Chamber, is featured on the Senate’s homepage.

For the Carleton Immersive Media Studio — known as CIMS — the tour is the culmination of five years of work documenting the rehabilitation project taking place on Parliament Hill.

Work is underway on the West Block. Renovations of Centre Block will begin in 2018 and could last a decade. In the interim, the House of Commons will meet under a glass-roofed enclosure taking shape in the courtyard of the West Block. The Senate will move to a temporary home in the Government Conference Centre, the 105-year-old former train station, across the street from the Chateau Laurier.

 “We worked with Public Services and Procurement Canada to determine what would be the best way to make a record of the existing conditions of the buildings prior to the rehabilitation,” says Professor Fai.

The result is an architectural catalogue called a building information model. The model serves a dual purpose; it gives architects, engineers, conservationists and contractors a complete record of the fixtures of West Block, East Block and Centre Block — a snapshot of each building before it undergoes rehabilitation.

At the same time, it serves as the basis for the Senate virtual tour, which focuses on the art and architecture of the Red Chamber. During construction, this digital model will be the closest thing to reality available for the thousands of visitors who would normally visit Centre Block each year.

The tour begins with a heart-stopping fly-in through Centre Block’s main entrance. The viewer then navigates through the Senate corridors. The interface allows them to take a complete 360-degree look around each step of the way. A click or tap pulls up information about sculptures, paintings and artifacts, with an option to play a simultaneous narration. More than 50 individual fixtures are spotlighted.

Design and narrative is at the heart of the immersive experience, says Professor Fai. “It’s digital storytelling — taking information we’ve gathered for the heritage recording of the building and bringing it to the public. It allows the public to share in some of the beautiful artwork and architecture that characterizes the Senate.”

However, he adds, the tour is much more than an architectural digest. “Hopefully it gives the public a deeper understanding of the work the Senate does and of the value of the Senate.”

How does it work?

Dhanda, who fine-tuned the code behind the tour’s interface, explains: “We take seven photos — rotating through a circle in 60-degree increments, plus one pointing up at the ceiling — and we put them together to create a fully orbitable panoramic image. The viewer will be in the centre of the orb, so to speak, and they can look around in all directions.”

For closeups, researchers used photogrammetry to build a three-dimensional composite.

“Software compiles our data and builds what is known as a point cloud,” Dhanda explains. “If you zoom in, these are actually just a bunch of tiny points. The software builds up a basic mesh of the sculpture and then adds texture, which it gets from the photos, giving you a 3-D orbital model.”

To take the virtual tour, visit

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