Fresh Virtual Tour Technology Presents New Way to Experience College Tours

Virtual campus tours are one of the first sources for many prospective college students to find information about not only the school itself, but also the experience of being on the campus and the image of the school. Students often go online first to find information on the colleges of their choice; a well put together virtual tour can help a student make his or her decision about pursuing the school. In order to promote its image and create a more thorough virtual tour experience, Harrisburg University (HU) in Harrisburg, PA, recently launched a Synthetic Interview (SI) enhanced virtual tour that allows students to not only tour the campus, but also speak to students, staff, and faculty.

With the SI virtual tour, a student can ask a question which is then searched for in a database. The best possible pre-recorded answer is then played. Harrisburg University created this technology in their Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies (CAELT), which was formed through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Enetertainment Technology Center and The Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania. This month, we talked to Charles Palmer, executive director of CAELT, about this new technology.

How popular are virtual tours for incoming college students?

Charles Palmer:
Virtual tours have always been popular. Not just for students, but for recruitment, fundraising, and the general advancement of any university. What makes our tour different is that it provides the guest with a real connection. You’re not just listening to a narration while viewing static images, nor are you spinning around endlessly at various vistas and nodes. We’re trying to create a living tour — something that resonates with students and parents by allowing them to make a connection with our students, faculty, and staff.

Have you seen any benefits from your SI virtual tour? 

Charles Palmer:
We’re only been up for a few weeks, but already we’re seeing a buzz in potential students inquiring about the University. We expected the 3D fly-through to be the most popular feature, but it seems most guest enjoy asking questions of our students, staff, and faculty.

What was the impetus behind the creation of the new tour at Harrisburg?

Charles Palmer:
We’ve been working with our friends at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center on creating new uses for their Synthetic Interview technology. Before we began the project, they had only created SI-kiosks of people like Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein. But we wanted to reach a little further.

Our story is a great one for Central Pennsylvania, and we like to tell it as often as possible — and the best way to do that was to present the message online.

How does it differ from the standard virtual tour?

Charles Palmer:
Most virtual tours integrate images, maps, and text to guide a guest around their campus. Some will add video, QTVR, or some other panoramic system to give guests the feeling of being “there.” We wanted to rethink what a tour is.

When students are visiting a university, they want to imagine themselves as part of the university’s community — not just the buildings or the philosophy. Guests want to talk to people. They want to hear different ideas, understand what’s unique about HU and Central PA, and challenge the University to “live up” to their personal expectations about college life. And that is what we’re doing. Our tour gives guests the information they need to make an informed judgment about HU.

We also didn’t want to create something and put it out there to sit idle like most Websites. Our tour is completely modular; we can update and add new videos, modify the building imagery, and even change the tour paths without any additional programming.

How is it beneficial to the recruiting process?

Charles Palmer:
In 2002, the Wall Street Journal stated, “70 percent of all college-bound high-school juniors began their college search on the Web.” I bet that number is closer to 99 percent now.

Almost everyone goes online to answer a question, including students looking for a college that meets their educational needs. This virtual tour is another tool to help our recruiters deliver the University message, story, philosophy, and heart.

Have you received any feedback from students?

Charles Palmer:
I’ll read you a couple of comments.
“It’s like being in the same room with a counselor.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. Why isn’t everyone doing it?”

How do you see using Synthetic Interviews in the future?

Charles Palmer:
I see a ton of uses for this technology. Imagine a knowledge repository, like Wikipedia, but instead of typing and reading, you verbally ask your question and a panel of experts presents various answers along with diagrams and animations.

Or what if instead of textbooks, students have access to subject-based SIs? An example would be a system that guides a student through a field of study, constantly monitoring, assessing, and adapting to the individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Will this be a technology other schools will most likely adopt?

Charles Palmer:
I hope so. This is one of those technologies that improves as others adopt and further develop our original concepts and assumptions.

When we hit the alpha stage and prepared for deployment, we made a list of things to consider for the next version. The list is easily as long as the project’s original list of functions. And I’m sure developers looking at the tour will generate their own ideas and improvements to build something that exceeds what we have planned for the future. But that’s what innovation is all about: one idea, sparking another, and another, and another.