Touring campuses in three dimensions … from your living room

Prospective students can tour Northeastern's 160 campus buildings in three dimensions from their computer.

It doesn’t require airfare or gas money, and students think it’s cool: Three-dimensional virtual campus tours have launched at seven colleges and universities, providing a welcomed alternative to the often-pricey college visit. provides Google Map-based layouts of about 4,800 U.S. college campuses, and the Boulder, Colo., company has created a virtual 3D tour for seven higher-ed institutions, allowing prospective students to scroll through any structure on campus and view it almost as they would in a traditional fact-packed tour led by a student guide.

Northeastern University, a 20,000-student campus in Boston, added CampusBird’s 3D tour model to its web site in November, and Northeastern officials said the mere presence of a 3D tour could be a valuable recruitment tool.

Avoiding the costs of campus visits, officials said, also could be appealing for families during tough economic times.

“We know students and their parents are very web savvy,” said Ronne Turner, associate vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and marketing at Northeastern. “I think it is helpful in a bad economy to have ways to help students get to know the campus. … It’s not as easy for people to make the trip, and students and families want a lot of information before they decide to make a campus visit if money is an issue.”

Oliver Davis, CEO of CampusBird, said the company consisting of former Google employees takes thousands of pictures of campus buildings—there are 160 structures on the Northeastern campus—and “stitches” the photos to a 3D platform based on the popular Google Maps layout.

“Schools really want to present the campus as it would be live,” Davis said, adding that pictures and text describing dorms and lecture halls don’t provide an immersive touring experience for prospective students.

Interviews with prospective college students during CollegeBird focus group sections revealed that college web sites are students’ primary source of information about the campus, Davis said.

Many students, he said, were impressed with schools that had 3D Google Maps-based campus tours, making the college seem more technologically progressive than peer institutions.

“It made the school seem more advanced [if] they were using this technology,” Davis said. “It’s more interactive, and that’s what most [students] have been looking for.”

Northeastern has used CampusBird’s technology to guide prospective students through the school’s international reach.

Under the “global presence” tab on the university’s 3D tour web page, visitors can click on a country—India, for example—and see that Northeastern undergraduate students are working with several companies throughout the country.

“You can zoom in and see what Northeastern students are doing in different countries,” she said. “It’s kind of fun to fly over the country.”

CampusBird’s 3D modeling is among a host of virtual options for campus tours for students who can’t make it to a physical campus.

American University’s virtual tour of its Washington, D.C., campus includes dozens of online videos in which faculty, staff, and students trumpet American’s educational and recreational highlights.

The university’s virtual tour—a $90,000 undertaking—is the centerpiece of a web site redesign that was launched March 30 after two years of development by more than 100 IT experts, including David Swartz, American’s chief information officer.

“Your web presence allows [students] to narrow their options,” Swartz said. “If they can get a sense of your people, your courses, your environment, it’s a very compelling way to narrow your choices.”

Realview TV, an Atlanta-based company that produces custom web video for colleges and universities, worked with IT officials to create American University’s state-of-the-art virtual tour.

“I think it has an important role in influencing students’ decision to enroll,” said Terry Flannery, executive director for university communications at American. “When resources are limited and you’re coming from a farther distance away, seeing the campus virtually becomes another option. … I think [virtual campus tours] complement [traditional] tours, but [they] will never replace the physical visit to the campus.”

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