Monday, March 12, 2007

Virtual Tours

A review of "virtual tours" - good and bad - on various university websites.

Boy, there are some lame virtual tours out there. A lot of campuses seem to think that a page with links to a few QuickTime VRs constitutes a virtual tour.

To be fair, whether or not a virtual tour is a "good" virtual tour depends on what the goal of the tour is. Is the "tour" supposed to be a real tour - that is, a guided exploration of important places and things on campus? Is it intended to be used to market the beauty of the campus? Is it intended to simply orient prospective visitors to the layout of campus?

Before embarking on creating a "virtual tour", I think you really need to answer the question of what the tour is supposed to accomplish. Only then can you say if it's a "good" tour or not.

That said, I looked at a lot of virtual tours, and picked out a few that I thought were well done.

UC Merced
I liked their's mostly because it was simple and clean. Menu - picture - text. Can't get any easier than that. On the other hand, I didn't think the tour really told me that much about the campus or region. Maybe it was too simple.

UC Davis
A lot of effort obviously went into the UC Davis tour, and it's obviously directed at prospective students. It provides a fair amount of information about Davis and the campus in a nicely designed format.

A couple of quibbles:
If you need to spell out "click photos >>" then you've got a usability problem - people don't recognize the little photos as navigation. Put left and right arrows next to the main photo.

Also, I'm starting to get a bit tired of generic "college life" photos. The guy in the cafeteria with a plate of food could be anywhere. Instead of the generic, try to focus on the different, the special and the unique. Prospective students will look at dozens of campus sites. They'll see lots of generic photos of campus life. You want to stand out, so you need to focus on what makes your campus different, special and unique.

University of Oregon
What I liked about this tour is that it was set up as an actual tour, with a starting points, sights along the way, and an ending point. However, inside the tour, the order didn't seem to make any difference. I liked the photos and the videos, but I wish the site had been more responsive.

University of Florida
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I loved their Google-based campus map, but this tour is both lame and annoying. The sound effects are terrible. I do like the interactive map, but I don't like how only some parts are clickable and I don't like that it has to load a new page to show info on the place you clicked on.

Yale University

Yale's tour is actually a number of different things. It has an "atlas", which is like an overview map (not too dissimilar from Humboldt's). But it also has a season-based photo slide show, a page on the numbers of international students (why that goes here, I don't know), QuickTime VR panoramas, notable graduates, a comic, and an almost endless list of other stuff.

I like the idea of the tour being more than one piece, but this isn't a "tour", it's a "hodgepodge". Some things obviously belong, but others generate a bit of a "huh?" factor. Also, the endless scrolling menu must be put to death.

Lewis University
Like a more focused version of the Yale "tour" Lewis University has combined a "virtual campus" and a "guided tour" into a single presentation. Very cool 3D campus map. Other than that, it could be a lot more effective where you are in the guided tour and why you should care.

Fresno Pacific University
Oddly, far and away the best tour was by this small Christian university that I'd never heard of before. I really liked the choice of tour guides with their different approaches and personalities. These guides were videos of different students talking about each place/activity on campus. They even had Spanish and Russian versions.

I loved the layout of the tour, broken into four components: a very nice and detailed zoomable map, a QuickTime VR of your location, a brief text description, and a 30-60 video of your tour guide talking about the location.

Extremely informative and well done. My only gripes are that there are dozens of hot spots on the map which are invisible by default (you can change that), and that the map doesn't highlight your current location. When you start the tour, you have no idea where you are on the map.

Of course, creating something like this would be a major effort, from creating the maps to scripting and shooting the videos of the tour guides. Kudos for expending the effort!

What I like in a Virtual Tour
  • A responsive tour. I hate slow tours that take forever to load.
  • An interactive tour. I like to control my browsing experience, not have it fed to me with no choices.
  • An integrated approach. A tour should be more than just some QuickTime VRs. Text, maps, VRs, photos, videos - all can be effective parts of a tour.
  • An organized approach. Provide a real guided tour, don't just drop people on campus.
  • Free exploration. Drop me on campus and let me explore. So, yes, I want both options in a virtual tour: guide me when I want to be guided, and let me explore when I want to go off on my own.
  • Always having a map visible
  • Relevant and interesting information
  • A focus on what makes the campus/region different, special and unique ("DSU")
  • VR panoramas. OK, I admit, I like these when they're well done. Nothing else gives you that 360 degree "you are there" view of a location.