Thought about crossing the Newport Pell Bridge on bike or foot? Try this VR experience

NEWPORT — A year after the Rhode Island School of Design and Bike Newport used virtual reality to imagine a bike and pedestrian-friendly way to cross from Jamestown to Newport, a larger-scale version of the same exhibition has made its way to Newport for residents themselves to envision a multi-modal Pell Bridge.

“Yeah, we can get a bike/ped path across (Pell Bridge) like they have crossing the St. Lawrence into Montreal, and all of the other big bridges of the world, but we can also do something experiential, which is what RISD students and faculty are opening our eyes to and giving us a first-hand chance to experience,” Bike Newport Executive Director Bari Freeman said. “This is very real, this is very reachable…This is the time to have this conversation.”

This interactive experience is actually the second iteration of the “Crossing the Pell” project produced by Rhode Island School of Design students in 2021 and was in by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It uses virtual reality and augmented reality to showcase four different possibilities, or schemes, for a pedestrian and bike-friendly path underneath the current drivable span of the bridge.

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Last year, the exhibition was smaller and held at the RISD Center for Integrative Technologies’ John Mason Building. However, thanks to additional funding provided by the Champlin Foundation, Bafflin Foundation, the Bazarsky Family Foundation and Reynold deWaltz Printing, RISD and Bike Newport were able to expand the exhibition into a much larger, public event, which will be held on Dec. 3 and 4 at the Old Colony House in Newport.

“These schemes are normally described in very small architectural drawings which no one can understand,” said Professor Liliane Wong, who heads the Department of Interior Architecture. “The idea here is to bring in the community and make the information accessible for all.”

At the Old Colony House, exhibition visitors will be able to navigate the four different designs for a possible Pell Bridge bicycling and pedestrian paths using a VR headset and a stationary bicycle or by walking in a designated space as others watch a projection of the experience at the same time. Visitors can also use an iPad and an augmented reality program to see what it would be like to walk alongside the different versions of the bridge.

Professor Liliane Wong demonstrates the augmented reality walk along the Pell Bridge exhibition visitors will be able to see on Saturday.
Professor Liliane Wong demonstrates the augmented reality walk along the Pell Bridge exhibition visitors will be able to see on Saturday.

In addition to the RISD students who created the project, two Rogers High School students are also helping with the exhibition on Saturday and Sunday, Freeman said, and RISD and Bike Newport also purchased two kids bicycles to give away during the exhibition.

“It’s so important to have all these connections,” Freeman said. “The thing that’s beautiful about this is that it demonstrates all the things we know are the most successful ways to make progress. Collaboration, involvement with the schools, these are the things that help us to move things forward and give us the tools to imagine new solutions. That’s the promise in this.”

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The four different versions of the bridge come from four different teams of students, each of which incorporate unique features to the pedestrian and bicycle walkway. Two of these visions for a possible Pell Bridge walkway focus on the potential for the walkway to work as a community space. One scheme proposes a “mini-city” below the main stretch of the bridge, with shops, restrooms, cafes and playgrounds, while another transforms a portion of the bridge into a screen, creating the world’s largest outdoor theater viewable from a boat or form a new floating amphitheater.

The other two schemes incorporate environmental and sustainability messaging through their designs. One pays homage to Newport’s fishing industry with its use of safety netting on the sides of the walkway and by including a fish market at the entrance to the bridge. The other proposes using solar and pedestrian-generated kinetic energy to harvest electric energy, which could be donated to residents in the North End.

“They were very much into social equity,” Wong said. “It was lovely to see the different schemes that came out."

Since there is no current proposal to add bicycling and pedestrian paths to the bridge, Freeman is hoping this exhibition will inspire Newport residents to think about the possibilities such an addition to the Pell Bridge could hold. As a member of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, which recently released the draft of the city’s new Transportation Master Plan, Freeman said this exhibit encompasses much of the aspirations behind what the master plan seeks to achieve.

Rhode Island School of Design student Yangchuan Deng uses the stationary bike and virtual reality headset to showcase the bike across Newport Bridge exhibition.
Rhode Island School of Design student Yangchuan Deng uses the stationary bike and virtual reality headset to showcase the bike across Newport Bridge exhibition.

“The bridge comes up in every conversation about what is the future of our transportation, specifically what is the mode-share distribution,” Freeman said. “What’s happening now is we’re able to put people into an environment where they can start to talk about it with a real experience.”

After the exhibition closes on Sunday, the experience will be available in other satellite locations, such as the Newport Public Library and Bike Newport for those who missed out. Freeman is hoping to find a way to install the technology in local community spaces or package it in a way that could be borrowed by schools and other organizations for further use.

“We want to keep this going,” Freeman said. “Our goal is really to keep this going, continue to have people experience this because it’s too cool to miss, and it’s very inspiring.”

The exhibition takes place Saturday, Dec. 3 from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 4 from 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Pre-registration for specified arrival times is encouraged, though not required, at

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport Pell Bridge VR experience at Old Colony House