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Virtual reality, real rewards in higher ed

Using augmented and virtual reality to attract students and engage donors
University Business, September 2017
  • LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!—The virtual reality-based Temple Adventure video, created using live actors and a scripted narrative, allows the participant to experience Temple University’s physical campus and student activities. (Photo: Bowstring Studios)
  • FIRST-PERSON PERSPECTIVE—Aerial and terrestrial camera shots were needed in creating the Temple Adventure virtual reality experience. Small 360Fly cameras, which have very wide lenses, allowed for 360-coverage with just two cameras. Ground footage begins outside Morgan Hall North with students searching for a legendary lost treasure, and participants are whisked beneath the Bell Tower, and then through classrooms, a theater, training gyms and more on the Philadelphia campus. (Photo: Bowstring Studios)

In the two years since Northern Arizona University launched a virtual 360-degree campus tour, more than 30,000 people have explored the campus virtually.

Those visits are translating to real-world action too. Chad Eickhoff, Northern Arizona’s director of recruitment and orientation, says more than 4,000 students who accessed the virtual tour either gave the university their contact information, scheduled a campus visit or applied for admission.

The virtual tour has been so effective, Northern Arizona recently launched a second one—focusing on the area beyond campus.


Sidebar: Providers on augmented and virtual reality ROI


“Potential students, faculty and donors can now feel like they are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, mountain biking through a Ponderosa pine forest or taking in the panoramic scenery of Sedona,” Eickhoff says. “We want viewers to get a sense of the adventures and opportunities they will find here to enhance their classroom learning.”

Such insights play an important part in prospective students’ decision-making processes. Han Jin, a University of California, Berkeley alum, says his in-person visit there played a major role in his enrollment decision.

“You can do a lot of research online and be very excited about a school, but the feeling is so different when you are there. When you’re walking around, you get the atmosphere, the people, the whole environment,” says Jin, who in 2015 co-founded Lucid VR, which helps institutions create virtual tours.

For the many students and families who can’t afford to travel to every potential school, virtual tours help them experience life on-campus from the comfort of home.

Jin recently helped his alma mater create a series of virtual reality tours that allow viewers to walk through the campus and “try” some on-campus activities, including sailing, kayaking and lacrosse.

Colleges began seriously investing in 360-degree tours around 2010, explains Gordon Meyer, director of marketing for YouVisit, an immersive technology company that produces virtual experiences for educational institutions and brands.

Alternative realities defined

Augmented Reality: Digital content overlaid on a real-world environment. A person can see their physical surroundings and computer-generated images. The popular game Pokémon Go is an example of augmented reality.

Virtual Reality: Immersion in a digitally created, simulated environment. A person can no longer see physical surroundings, and instead sees and experiences images, sounds and, in some cases, tactile sensations generated by a computer. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are two virtual reality systems.

Mixed Reality: A merging of real and virtual worlds. A person sees their physical environment, as well as 3D digital objects that are anchored to points in the physical world. Microsoft Hololens is an example of a mixed reality system.

“Mobile VR hardware starting rolling out in 2014, and as consumers have steadily adopted those products, the demand for completely immersive experiences has grown,” Meyer says. Today, hundreds of colleges and universities offer virtual reality tours. Administrators are increasingly exploring the power of two technologies:

  • augmented reality (AR), or digital content overlaid on a real-world environment
  • virtual reality (VR), or immersion in digitally created, simulated environments

Typically—and perhaps naturally—administrators’ thoughts first turn toward teaching applications. But while augmented and virtual reality are indeed powerful tools that can transform learning, savvy administrators are learning that these technologies have the potential to touch every corner of university life, from student recruitment to capital improvement.

“In this day and age, handing out a piece of paper isn’t effective,” says Kirk Robles, assistant director of marketing and business development for UC Berkeley’s Recreational Sports Marketing Group. That sentiment holds true whether you’re communicating with prospective students, alumni, faculty or donors.

In years past, colleges undertaking construction projects would “put a picture of the building on the construction fence,” says John Sweeney, CFO of Providence College in Rhode Island. Now, some colleges (including Providence) share virtual reality representations of projects with donors and other stakeholders before ground is broken.

Create excitement, drive engagement

More than 50 years ago, author Marshall McLuhan made the memorable point, “The medium is the message.” One reason virtual reality is such a powerful communication tool for colleges and universities is that the message’s form affects its perception.

Increasingly, prospective students seek information visually. Generation Z lives online, but as market research has shown, a simple web page won’t cut it anymore: These young people spend only about eight seconds on web pages that lack media content.

Evidence suggests AR and VR are an effective way to grab attention online. Visitors who interact with Northern Arizona’s virtual tour spend an average of 10 minutes on the site, and many viewers schedule an on-campus tour after completing the virtual one.

“The ROI on the virtual tour has been outstanding,” Eickhoff says.

Northern Arizona’s annual contract with YouVisit, a virtual reality company that helped create and now hosts the virtual tour, costs $13,000. Undergraduate tuition for the 2017-18 school year is $24,000, so the university comes out ahead if even one student enrolls as a result of virtual exposure.

Because AR and VR are not yet commonplace in higher ed, using the technology for recruitment and other communication positions institutions as forward-thinking and innovative.

Engage prospective students

Temple University in Philadelphia has been using a superhero adventure type of touch point for prospective students to get to know the institution, says Francesca Reynolds, director of marketing.

Called the Temple Adventure, the virtual reality experience offers a fast-moving first-person perspective to show how beautiful the campus is. “You’re zipping in and out through campus, and trying to find a treasure,” she says.

At events such as a Comic-Con comic book and pop culture festival, Temple has had a booth where students and their families can hear about the benefits of enrolling at the university and then see the video.

“Our audiences are 15- to 17-year-olds. They’re into technology, they’re into reading blogs, and reading, and video blogging. So that’s how we’re pushing out our messaging, as an institution,” Reynolds says.

“This VR is part of a year’s worth of research and strategy that we’re using to get the message out to our audiences, meeting them where they are already.”

To draw even more attention to the university via the video, Temple has bought digital advertising. Admissions counselors have also used it on the road, even internationally—including in Dubai, India, Korea, Taiwan, the U.K. and most of Southeast Asia.

Similarly, UC Berkeley launched its VR tours at Caltopia, an annual two-day campus festival attended by more than 35,000 students, prospective students, faculty, alumni and community supporters. At the event, visitors who were interested in the VR tours received free Google Cardboard viewers so they could experience the tours on their smartphones.

That way, “they could take the experience back home,” Robles says. “They can show it to their brothers, sisters, parents or kids, and share how it feels to be here.”

Jin, the Lucid CEO and Berkeley alum, believes such experiences may make Berkeley seem like a realistic option for potential students who may have otherwise considered the college an unrealistic dream. “Showing someone that ‘you can be part of this’ gives hope and may encourage them to actually give it a try,” Jin says.

Inform and excite stakeholders

Rutgers University and Providence College are among a few U.S. higher ed institutions that have experienced the power of VR to fuel capital improvement projects. Both schools hired the S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM), a U.S.-based architecture and engineering firm, to design new campus projects.

SLAM created 360-degree VR architectural renderings of Rutgers’ new Richard Weeks Hall of Engineering and shared them with students, faculty and donors—including 87-year-old Richard Weeks—via the IRIS VR app and SLAM- and Rutgers-branded viewers at a May 2016 groundbreaking ceremony.

With the technology,  attendees were able “see” a building that doesn’t yet exist. “The building entry has a big cantilever edge that comes out over a plaza,” says Ryan Deane, SLAM landscape architect. “It was pretty neat to see Mr. Weeks experience that. He took a step back and laughed.”

Virtual viewings can help assure donors their money is being well-spent. Providence College, in fact, exceeded the financial goal of its most recent capital campaign.

The college was aiming for $140 million in donations to support student scholarships, academic program enhancements and capital improvements, including two new academic buildings and upgrades to athletic facilities; they raised more than $180 million.

Sweeney, the CFO, says involving stakeholders throughout the capital improvement process was key. The college posted animated videos of proposed facility project changes on its website, as well as photographs and webcam footage. 

Virtual renderings helped project managers make decisions regarding proper lighting of a 33-foot flame sculpture, appropriate bench placement and other design features.

“We were able to let all the project stakeholders walk around and experience it and see what they’re going to get,” says Deane. “When you’re looking at $1 million in stainless steel, you don’t want to invest that kind of money and then not have it be exactly what you thought.” 


Jennifer L.W. Fink is a Wisconsin-based writer.

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