The University of North Carolina System’s Virtual Reality Campus Tours

Can a prospective student imagine themselves at your school? If they can, then they are more likely to do the things that they need to do in middle and high school to prepare themselves for college.

But geography and cost often limit the number of campuses prospective students can visit. They may write off great colleges before they know enough to make a decision. How can you make the campus tour available to as many students as possible as early as possible?

Steven King, Associate Professor of Interactive and Multimedia at The University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about why virtual reality (VR) has the opportunity to surpass the experiential benefits of the traditional campus tour.

Why Offer a Virtual Reality Campus Tour?

“This is more than just a campus tour,” Steven explained. “We’re using storytelling to engage students in imagining what the possibilities are. We’re not just saying, ‘This is this building, this is that building, this is what happens in this building,’ but we’re using student voices to share an experience of what they could do there.”

Prospective students can consume the images and stories quickly and see a variety of programs and campuses. It would be nearly impossible to tour all 16 state colleges and 10 communities college in North Carolina, but in just a few hours, students can see everything virtually and make better decisions about which campuses to tour in person.

“I don’t see it as a replacement for the on-campus tour,” Steven said, “but I think it’s a great alternative, and it even has some really nice benefits that we couldn’t get otherwise.”

UNC has created an immersive experience without having to work within the constraints of whatever’s happening live on campus.

How many high school students on a campus tour actually got to fly in an airplane in a pilot’s program? Could you actually go on a fossil dig? No, you couldn’t. But you can in the VR experience.

Are Virtual Reality Campus Tours Cost-Prohibitive to Produce?

There are three levels of VR. The biggest thing is the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive. You’re connected to a major gaming machine, and those are expensive, about $2,000 with all the pieces.

Then there’s the mobile VR, and there are a lot of options there. “My favorite is the Oculus Go,” Steven said. “It’s about $200. It’s an untethered, really great experience, and works in a classroom.”

But for this audience, UNC worked with Google Cardboard, which provides an inexpensive opportunity to get people immersed into the content.

“For us, it was important that we created and crafted content designed for the Google Cardboard,” Steven said, “because one of the things is that if you’re holding it up to your head, your arms are in a kind of L-shaped position. How long can you hold that?”

Research says three minutes. So all of UNC’s videos are guaranteed to run less than three minutes.

UNC delivered this project in a classroom with 20-300 students. So they quickly realized they would need headsets, too. Now, they include the headsets when they ship out the devices. It’s about $4 per headset, and they ship 17,000 of them across the state of North Carolina.

Student Feedback on UNC’s Virtual Reality Campus Tours

“Wow, I get to experience this! Isn’t this cool?”

People to go on that tour they wouldn’t otherwise have taken, and they think it’s cool. After that, though, prospective students talk to admissions advisors about things they might have seen in that video. It’s elevated some of the lesser-known campuses.

“We have UNC and NC State, everyone knows those schools,” Steven said, “but UNC Wilmington has very specific things that they’re very good at, and we were able to highlight those.”

Through the VR experience, prospective students begin to realize they could go to a smaller campus that still offers the programs that interest them.

“We’re also looking at analytics,” Steven said. “We’re going to be following these students from the ninth grade, who have been part of the GEAR UP program, and then 10th grade when they got the headsets, all the way up.”

Those studies will let UNC know where their student prospects went to school and what major they chose among other information.

Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Considering VR Campus Tours

“We’re not doing full computer-generated, animated pieces like a video game,” Steven told us. “These are 360 video experiences, which is important to give that true, real-life experience.”

People may say, “Oh, it costs half a million dollars to make a VR game.” It does, but a game isn’t necessary. What UNC is doing can be made a whole lot cheaper than that.

“We’ve worked with people who are really good at shooting 360 video,” Steven said. “I couldn’t go and shoot all these campuses, so we ended up hiring a company to go and shoot all of these and get these done quickly, and then we produced them into the app.”

UNC wants to make their GEAR UP app available to other people to use, so basically for the cost to support it and keep it going, they’re willing to share their code.

“If there really is interest, they should contact us,” Steven said. “I think we can help in ways that we’ve learned a lot, and maybe we can share some of the problems we had and hopefully help others around that.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Steven King of the The University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.