What to Read Next

Touring Your Future College Campus Using Oculus Rift

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech
August 1, 2014

This summer, thousands of high school sophomores and juniors will set out to visit the colleges where they hope to spend four (or more) years pursuing a higher education. 

But if a new startup called YouVisit has anything to do with it, future undergrads won’t need to travel any farther than their guidance counselors’ offices to tour campuses.

The New York-based startup is using the Oculus Rift headset to make virtual campus tours more realistic, immersive, and helpful. Previously, YouVisit had hosted more than 1,000 virtual tours of colleges on its website; this August, the company will partner with the admissions departments at nine schools — from the University of California at San Diego to Yale — to bring their campuses to life via the high-tech goggles.

Virtual U
For the uninitiated, Oculus Rift is a headset you place over your eyes to help you navigate through virtual worlds. The image follows your gaze as you turn your head, allowing you to become immersed in a wholly digital environment. The Rift was created to add 3D realism to video games, but it has since piqued the interest of other companies eager to innovate. 

Student wearing a YouVisit headset
Student wearing a YouVisit headset

(YouVisit)

“[Colleges] will basically take Oculus on the road with them, bringing it to events where they meet with prospective students,” YouVisit CEO and co-founder Abi Mandelbaum told Yahoo Tech. 

In YouVisit’s pilot program, admissions officers from the nine schools will use the Oculus Rift as a prop in their presentations to students. In some cases they may set up a station on campus so potential attendees can tour parts of the campus that are otherwise off limits. In other situations, they’ll hold events at high schools, allowing both guidance counselors and students to get a more realistic feel for the universities’ facilities.

Mark Dunn, director of outreach and recruitment at Yale’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions, will facilitate these Oculus tour events. Dunn said he isn’t entirely sure how he’ll integrate the Rift into his presentations, but he sees great potential in the technology.

“Matching up such a cool, seemingly futuristic technological experience with Yale’s neo-Gothic campus might seem like a strange combination, but I found they fit together perfectly,” Dunn told Yahoo Tech in an email. “When visitors tour our campus in person, there are plenty of ooohs and ahhhs. Experiencing those same campus spaces in the OR headset produces the same sense of wonder, without the distance and artifice associated with clicking through images on a browser.”

Though Dunn doesn’t think YouVisit will ever fully replace an in-person tour, he says the technology helps show students parts of the campus that they may not have access to, depending on the time of year or a student’s personal circumstances.

“Weather and timing can always make it challenging to see everything you want when you visit a college campus,” Dunn said. “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.”

Mandelbaum agrees that sometimes the most compelling parts of a campus are left out of a school’s basic visitor map.

“The virtual walking tour goes into a lot of spaces that students are not allowed to go into, even if they’re physically there,” he said. “Imagine there’s a piece of equipment in one of the labs that’s worth millions of dollars. They’re not letting anyone near that.”

Oh, the places you’ll (virtually) go
Yes, using Oculus Rift may be better than clicking around a virtual tour on your desktop computer. But does it rival a real-life visit? 

I dropped by YouVisit’s office to take a tour of my alma mater, the University of California, San Diego, to see if the technology lived up to the hype. (Or, as Mandelbaum put it, “remember the good old days.”) Though I’d used the Oculus Rift at tech conferences before, I was mesmerized by how realistic my surroundings felt, and how well they matched my memories of the school.

The real (not virtual) Geisel Library, named for its benefactor, better known as Dr. Seuss. (UCSD)

Standing in front of the campus’s iconic Geisel Library, I looked up to see the typical blue sky reflecting on its weird, spaceship-like surface, and down to see the paved walkway I ran through so many times as I rushed to make it to my summer job there on time. Even a quick peek at the campus hub Price Center took me back to many a (regrettable) late-night run to Burger King.

For a place where you have no real point of reference, however, I could imagine YouVisit being somewhat confusing. Aside from a campus’s awesome stadiums or ornate study halls, the majority of schools are generally unremarkable. It takes more than just 3D images to get a real sense of a place.

There were other limitations, too. I wasn’t able to travel seamlessly from UCSD’s library to the Price Center (they’re right next to each other) without going through a confounding central menu screen filled with locations. Mandelbaum says he and his team are working on more fluid navigation tools to make it easier to move around.

Another obstacle is the limited availability of the Oculus Rift itself. As you may recall, Oculus VR — the company that produces the Oculus Rift and was bought by Facebook for $2 billion earlier this year — has yet to release its headset to the public, making it difficult for admissions offices to get their hands on one. YouVisit’s technology isn’t compatible with any other VR gear.

The company has found a temporary solution to this problem, however, purchasing about 15 developer’s kits from the company and rotating them among schools.

This has inspired some admissions departments, including the one at France’s Audencia Nantes School of Management, to purchase their own developer’s kit. Dunn says Yale, too, plans to have its own by early fall.

“We wish that the Oculus would move a little bit faster in terms of releasing their dev kits, and hopefully their consumer version,” Endri Tolka, YouVisit chief financial officer and co-founder, told Yahoo Tech. “We already have this distribution network that’s waiting for us to be able to provide tours. We’re hoping that soon enough they’re going to release the new version.”

Until then, students will just have to focus on being accepted in the first place.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.