The University of North Carolina System has launched a new virtual reality app that allows students to view 360-degree campus tours of all 16 UNC-system universities.
As students enter into the college application season, the immersive app is designed to help students who may be unable to tour college campuses due to financial or other logistical reasons get a better sense of their higher education options.
The app, which first debuted in early August of this year, is a part of the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs North Carolina initiative for college access. Over the past couple months, the GEAR UP NC program has organized several outreach events, during which high school students were able to test out the new technology.
To operate the VR software, students are given VR goggles framed by a GEAR UP NC branded cardboard box. After downloading the app, students place their phones into the box, and are able to view the app’s 16 campus videos in 3D. Each video was specifically filmed and edited to showcase the distinct characteristics of the individual UNC-system schools. As a result, students can make accurate and informed college decisions without having to visit the schools in person.
The app can be downloaded for free on the Apple App Store and Google Play store, so the app’s videos are available for anyone’s viewing. However, the program specifically targets students who are unfamiliar with the application process and experience barriers in accessing college.
“It’s to get the information that college is an option and it’s an opportunity in North Carolina to the students that are served by the GEAR UP grant, but also to all students in rural areas or in demographics where families may not have any knowledge of college,” said Carol Cutler White, principal investigator of strategy and policy and college access at UNC General Administration.
In an effort to improve college accessibility, GEAR UP NC has selected 21 North Carolina high schools to receive VR headsets and earbuds. This will enable the schools to take collective class tours, offer a support system for their students and cultivate an environment in which college is a feasible goal.
“We have solved a problem for the school, not just for GEAR UP, but for the school for the future,” White said. “They want to be able to take students on tours. They want to be able to expose students to college. They certainly don’t have the resources to do that, so this is a cost-effective way for them to do that.”
To create this solution, White worked with UNC professor Steven King’s Emerging Technologies Lab in the UNC School of Media and Journalism. King managed the development process and hired contractors and students to build the app’s infrastructure. This technology was then combined with videography of the 16 universities from the company SeeBoundless. GEAR UP NC is now improving the app by adding chatbots to a majority of the universities’ VR experience. Designed by a company called AdmitHub, the chatbots will allow students to receive answers to basic questions 24/7. This new addition uses artificial intelligence to reduce obstacles to college accessibility.
“We want to continue to expand the usability and the usefulness of it,” White said.
Other universities have offered virtual campus tours on their websites, but the GEAR UP NC project facilitates the first VR program of its kind across a university system in the US.
The organizers of GEAR UP NC hope that the unique nature of the project will encourage more students to get excited about their college opportunities.
“We hope this is the start of a new way of experiencing campus," said Jason Tyson, director of media relations for the UNC system.
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