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Virtual Tour de Force

Universities are using cutting-edge virtual tours to give prospective students a feel for life on campus--and as a tool in recruitment.

Real estate agents have used virtual tours for decades, hoping that buyers who get an online peek inside a home will feel compelled to schedule a live showing. Colleges and universities are now using the same strategy, with the goal of turning curious high school and transfer students into new recruits.

Using online video and, in some cases, a back-end system to track these virtual viewers, colleges are giving prospective students a look at their campuses and amenities before they ever set foot on campus. But the most successful tours go beyond just bricks and mortar--they aim to capture what life is like for students on campus, focusing on the overall learning environment.

Dartmouth College's (NH) Thayer School of Engineering started using 360-degree panoramic tours to show off its campus to new recruits in late 2009. Joseph Helble, dean and professor of engineering, says the idea was born after a group of undergraduate students won a Google SketchUp (3D modeling software) contest.

"The competition entailed mapping part of the campus online in a 3D format," recalls Helble. "The end result was a 3D, photographic version of the campus, and we thought it would be great if prospective students could 'step inside' our buildings electronically to tour our facilities."

Developed by Dartmouth's communications group and the IT department, the virtual tour is based on panoramic photography taken by an in-house photographer. Students were involved in the process, suggesting ideas for the video content, angles, and coverage.

Most of the college's interior areas, and some of its exterior, are represented on the tour. "To do our entire facility would have meant showing offices and research laboratories, but we didn't want to open those up to an online audience," Helble explains. "Instead, we stuck to the common spaces, classrooms, project laboratories, and areas where we could show student teams working on open-ended design projects."

Tackling the Challenges
Creating and uploading the virtual tour was straightforward, although the college's aggressive timeline of just eight months created a time crunch. "In January it was little more than an idea, and by September it was up and running," says Helble.

Key steps included shooting the campus footage (both static photos and videos), "stitching" the content together into a cohesive video clip, and then editing the final product using Apple iMovie. The panoramas that form the visual background for each room were assembled using PTGui software, and displayed using Krpano Panoramic Viewer.

"The video went through a few iterations before it was ready to upload to our website," recalls Helble. "We would prepare a set of video clips for a particular room, review them to see if they told the story we wanted to tell, and then edit or shoot new content to build the collection we ultimately posted."

The video is continually honed to ensure that it stays fresh and relevant for its audience of prospective freshmen. Students in some project-oriented classes, for example, film their work and show a short video as part of their final presentation. The communications staff makes arrangements with faculty and students to obtain some of this content, which is then edited into the virtual tour during regular updates.

Over the past year, the site has attracted approximately 6,000 visitors, with the average individual visiting five to six rooms, as well as watching videos and slideshows and reading fact boxes describing the school and its programs.

With the core virtual tour in place and updates handled on a regular schedule, the next step will be to integrate a system for tracking potential recruits who view the online tour. "We're talking now about how we can do a better job of tracking utilization," says Helble. "We haven't closed the loop yet and asked students if they feel this played a role in their decision to visit and apply."

For a full description of how Dartmouth College created its virtual tour of the Thayer School of Engineering, visit

A Recruiting Package
While Dartmouth's plans for a tracking system are still on the drawing board, California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, has tied its virtual tour to the school's customer retention management (CRM) program. The program automatically creates a dynamic VIP microsite for each student prospect, based on his individual attributes. The underlying philosophy is that a student's decision to visit--and ultimately enroll--is driven by multiple contact points, of which a virtual tour is just one element.

All prospective students have their own username and password that allow them to sign on and see their own dynamic information at any time. According to James Maraviglia, associate provost for marketing and enrollment development, the VIP microsites include streaming video messages from a number of campus sources, such as academic department chairs, as well as current and former students.

Cal Poly collects personal information, including name and address, about all its prospects. "We use the CRM to manage the relationships throughout the lifecycle--from the time prospective students view the tour until they are accepted for admission," says Maraviglia. "In many cases, we know more about the 'virtual' prospects than we do about those who walk through the campus in person."

The university launched its first "virtual viewbook" online in 2003, having previously sent CD-ROMs to prospects. It has been honing its strategy ever since. Its communications team, primarily comprising students working with the associate director, captures the footage, which is then used to create new tours and update existing clips.

"They shoot a lot of video, which is used across various multimedia channels on campus," says Maraviglia. "It's all part of our web presence." The associate director handles the stitching and editing of the tours, which are then uploaded to the appropriate university web pages.

Maraviglia says the university's virtual viewbook includes campus tours, video footage, and other tools that give students an inside look at Cal Poly. With 90 percent of the university's new students hailing from more than 100 miles away, the tours--combined with the robust CRM system and a method for monitoring progress--have played a role in the university's growth.

"Many of our peers are still in the direct-mail days, but we haven't produced a paper brochure in over a decade," says Maraviglia. "This hasn't hurt our applicant pool at all. In fact, it's grown from 20,000 to 40,000 over the last 10 years. We credit our digital strategy--which includes our virtual viewbook--with stoking much of that growth."

To other schools that are thinking about developing virtual tours, Maraviglia says it isn't enough to simply upload a video to a college website. You must also manage the relationship with the prospective student, he insists. And the best way to do that is with a robust back-end system.

"One hand has to know what the other one is doing," he says. "Without that piece, you'll have no idea whether your virtual tour strategy is working or not."

Campus Tours Get Smart
Augmented reality, QR codes, and interactive games let students take campus tours into their own hands. By Jennifer Skelly

It's a time-honored tradition: The summer between junior and senior years, high school students and their families pile into minivans and trek across the country to tramp the quads of prospective colleges. It's a pattern that's unlikely to change anytime soon, but how students actually tour campuses may be evolving.

While many universities woo prospective students with online virtual tours, interactive maps, and 3D fly-throughs, there is a recognition that most students--except those living far away--will also visit the campus before enrollment.

When it comes right down to it, students want to know what life on campus is really like, and technology can't re-create the feeling of being there. "There's something intangible that you can only get on campus," notes Colenn Berracasa, admissions counselor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If technology can't compete with real-world experiences, it can certainly enhance them. With the explosion of smartphones in society, new opportunities for self-paced, self-guided exploration are popping up. UCSB's Office of Admissions, for example, created a self-guided tour using the social location-based game SCVNGR. Students earn points, redeemable at the university bookstore, by exploring the campus and posting updates and photos via social networking sites.

In many ways, the university gets a two-for-one deal: A prospective student tours the campus, plus lots of other potential students experience the campus virtually. Anil Gnanamuthu, admissions counselor and coordinator of campus tours, hopes the tour will appeal to visitors who--for whatever reason--don't participate in group tours. "Most people want the guided tour," he says. "The game is for when they can't make it."

Maps to Go
Almost every university uses signage--either traditional or digital--to display campus maps or building directories. But you can't exactly take the display with you, and what kind of high school dork wants to be seen on campus with a printout? To alleviate such teenage angst, Tufts University (MA) has affixed stickers to its map displays that bear both a URL and a Quick Response (QR) code, allowing students and visitors to download maps to their smartphones (way cooler!). For schools with digital signage, adding a QR code or Microsoft Tag is even easier.

"You can create a tag that points to any URL, website, or even a vCard if you're looking for a professor," says David Levin, president of Four Winds Interactive, a digital signage company that has begun incorporating Microsoft Tags into its displays. "As more and more individuals carry devices, they often want to take the information with them on their phone."

Smartphones are also capable of displaying the very latest in cutting-edge tour technology--augmented reality (AR). AR allows a developer to enhance a real-world image by overlaying computer-generated information. When a user points his phone's camera at a building, for example, GPS determines the user's location, prompting images, text boxes, and other data to overlay the real-time camera image.

Today's AR smartphone tours are a lot simpler than the first AR campus tour created at Columbia University (NY) in 1997. Back then, users were outfitted with a head-mounted device, a backpack with a GPS antenna, and a handheld computer display.

Layar, an Amsterdam-based company, has developed a mobile AR platform that allows users to create and publish their own AR "layers": images, text, audio or video files, even animation. And because anyone can publish a layer, campus guides are starting to crop up in higher education, including at Purdue University (IN), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ryerson University in Toronto. At UCSB, about one-third of the campus is mapped onto a Layar app. Students and visitors walk around campus using their phones to view buildings labeled with a blue dot. Tapping the dot loads additional information about the building on screen.

Not everyone is convinced that AR tours are ready for prime time. Dave Olsen, a technologist at West Virginia University, developed a campus guide using Layar in December 2009, but never went public with it. WVU is an expansive campus: On Olsen's tour, every building within line of sight had a blue dot, and the interface became unwieldy. While he likes the idea of an AR guide, he feels its usefulness is limited by bandwidth, screen size, and the current capabilities of smartphones.

"The good thing about a campus tour is the experience--that's what you're selling," notes Olsen. "I'm not sure anyone's been able to do that yet [using a mobile app]. I think it can and will happen, we're just a little ways out. What students really want to know is, 'What's the vibe and how do I fit?'"

Jennifer Skelly is a screenwriter and freelance journalist in Los Angeles.

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