Oculus Rift U? Tech goes to college with virtual campus tours


Developer YouVisit makes visiting colleges a virtual reality for prospective students.

While video games have been the focus around the new wave of virtual reality coming soon from Facebook-owned  FB 1.18%  Oculus VR and Sony’s Morpheus, there are other applications for the technology. Developer YouVisit has more than 1,000 virtual tours of colleges around the globe that currently run on Oculus Rift, which could change the way universities promote their schools and give incoming freshmen a new way to explore campuses without actually stepping foot on them.

Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and co-founder of YouVisit, said his company had already been capturing college campuses through video and photos using special equipment. An on-site shoot typically takes two to three days, and the locations covered range from the student center and dormitories, to classrooms, labs, and everything in between. Previously, students and educators used the YouVisit.com site via laptops and mobile devices to experience this content. Since September 2013, the company has stitched everything together to provide an immersive 3D experience on the virtual reality headset. All of the virtual campus tours are now available on Oculus Rift, making YouVisit one of the lead non-gaming content providers on the platform.

“When visitors tour our campus in person, there are plenty of ‘oooh’s and ahhh’s,’” said Mark Dunn, director of outreach and recruitment at Yale University, which will be receiving its first Oculus Rift headsets this fall. “Experiencing those same campus spaces in the Oculus Rift headset produces the same sense of wonder, without the distance and artifice associated with clicking through images on a browser. As I experienced it, the Oculus Rift technology enhanced the campus visit experience, rather than distracting from it.”

While Yale is still formalizing its Oculus Rift plans, Dunn says he can imagine an officer bringing along a headset to showcase to a small group of students when they travel to high schools across the country. He also believes a headset could be integrated into its on-campus outreach and recruitment events.

“This might seem counter-intuitive, but our existing YouVisit content includes many campus spaces that we can’t normally open up to visitors,” said Dunn. “Weather and timing can always make it challenging to see everything you want when you visit campus. A virtual tour station during one of our on-campus events would be its own attraction, and the headset itself is just so cool, it’s easy to imagine high school seniors lining up for hours just to try it on.”

Although there’s no release date yet for the Oculus Rift, schools have been ordering the Oculus Rift development kit, which includes a pair of headsets. Mandelbaum said that colleges and universities that work with YouVisit will be showcasing their virtual tours to prospective students on the Oculus headset at more than 1,500 recruitment events at high schools and college fairs this fall.

“I can imagine that this technology will provide a very valuable supplement to the college visit experience,” said Dunn. “I’ll also note that Yale makes a special effort to reach out to promising students who may have lacked the advantages and resources for college preparation which others may have had. As such, it is my hope that this exciting technology becomes accessible to high school students without the resources to travel to campus.”

While it may not replace the physical college campus visit in the United States, virtual reality is making global education opportunities more accessible.

“Higher education is rapidly becoming global, students are considering options in very distant parts of the world, and it is not possible for many of them to visit the campus before they make a final choice,” said Andrew Taylor, information manager at the Audencia Nantes School of Management in France. “The VR headset allows them to get a feeling of how it is to visit the campus before they actually come to study with us.”

The Audencia Nantes School of Management is using Oculus Rift for more than just a tour of campus.

“Our virtual tour will not only include the school itself but also the main landmarks of the city in which we are located: Nantes,” said Taylor. “This is a student city and we think it is important to show students how life can be here.”

College students, or would-be tourists, may soon be able to walk the virtual campus halls, or the city streets of college towns. At E3 in Los Angeles this year, Virtuix demonstrated a walking tour of Amsterdam. The tour combined Oculus Rift’s virtual reality with its own Omni multidirectional treadmill, allowing attendees to explore the streets and alleys of the “Venice of the North” without leaving the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“Virtual reality is now at the stage where the experience becomes extremely real, and it’s only going to get better with increased resolution and lower latency,” said Jan Goetgeluk, CEO of Virtuix. “In addition to the head mounted display, the Omni allows for physical and active immersion in VR, enabling not only your mind but also your full body to be part of the VR experience.”

What’s especially interesting about this influx of support for Oculus is that not a single retail VR headset has been sold to the public yet.

“There have not been many products in history that have had that type of impact prior to being released to consumers,” said Mandelbaum.

YouVisit is in the process of exploring other virtual reality devices, including Sony’s Morpheus, with the goal to make its virtual tours available on all VR headsets.

In April, Virtuix raised $3 million from top investors like Mark Cuban and funds including Maveron and Tekton Ventures. That money is allowing the tech start-up to roll out the commercial launch of the Omni later this year, and ramp up our production and distribution to new markets and customers that are emerging every day.

“VR is set to hit the mass market in 2015, and we need to be ready for that,” said Virtuix’s Goetgeluk. “VR is real this time, and it’s here to stay. It’s no longer a niche technology.”