UCSF Virtual Campus Tours: Take a Look Behind the Scenes

UCSF Aerial View

By Stephanie Yee. As at many campuses across the country, a keen interest in virtual tours skyrocketed at UCSF when the COVID-19 pandemic did not appear to show any signs of waning after several months. But with such a large institution—UCSF has several locations across the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland and Fresno—how would a project team approach such an undertaking? 

Starting off: From Inquiry to Conceptualization

In response to a growing number of inquiries from different departments across UCSF, the Office of Communications decided it was about time for UCSF to have virtual tours available on demand!

Given the many constituents involved, the project lead conducted a UCSF wide survey to first understand and establish the project’s scope and scale. Based on the responses, a steering committee was formed to shape the virtual tours not only to orient soon-to-be arriving students, fellows, faculty members, and employees for both campus and health, but also to attract prospective affiliates and keep alumni informed about their alma mater. 

A kickoff meeting brought the steering committee members together to review and discuss the project background; internal survey results; external user needs; project goals and limitations; competitive examples; and project timeline and workflow.

Through a series of meetings over roughly two months, the project team and steering committee decided upon the following:

  • Chosen Tour Platform: After some deliberation, the team decided to use 3DVista, since this desktop software is top-of-class for both professionalism and flexibility. (And with all the current and future constructions plans, 3DVista has proven to be simple to use and budget-friendly.) 
  • Content Development: The steering committee planned for several rounds of review, editing, and sharing feedback once a prototype was ready. A freelance writer helped craft descriptions of each location with the proposed tone, voice, length, and amount of information matching the agreed-upon objective of conveying warmth, authenticity, positivity, humanity, and liveliness. A freelance voice actor was also hired to provide the virtual tours’ audio narration, with a goal of lending a positive, warm, lively, authentic, and human experience.
  • Official Stops: Each attraction on the tour would feature a 3D panoramic photo, a general description, and a gallery of still photography. (Within the 3D photo space, users would also be able to see and click on optional hotspots or move to other official stops.)
  • Hotspots: Clickable areas within a 3D panoramic photo, each hotspot could have one or more photos along with a blurb.
  • Still Photography: An assortment of two to three photos highlighting unique features, and submitted by UCSF community members, was determined to be a nice way for collective participation.
  • 360-Degree Photography: A team of two scouted locations, worked with a vendor to capture official stops, and assessed what equipment would be needed to reshoot certain areas when the need arose. (Bonus: Meet the Makers spotlight by the UCSF Library)
  • “Welcome” Drone Footage Reel: A discussion about creating a master cut led to a more dynamic landing page experience.
  • Integration into UCSF website: The team explored the best way to embed the tours onto the UCSF website, including an accessible version for screen readers.
  • Webinar: The project lead hosted a lunch-and-learn presentation to share the latest vision of this project with key UCSF stakeholders, in addition to holding independent meetings to make sure their needs were met and to answer questions.
  • Blueprint Template: Light user testing was incorporated to see if the current design was working before making adjustments to establish a blueprint template to create additional tours.

Almost There: Building, Testing, and Many Rounds of Review

After a round of user testing and some development hitches, plus a few tweaks to the general tour design, a draft of the virtual tour was ready for review on a development site with an explanation of some changes that were implemented:

  • Watermark: A minimized navigation bar could not be added due to browser conflicts, so a UCSF watermark that takes the user back to the main site was added instead.
  • Navigation Choices: “Next” and “Back” were confusing to users; instead the “Next Stop: Location” was used.
  • VR: The VR logo was removed since it was confusing on the desktop.
  • On-Start Play Button: A play button was added to prevent an irksome automated pop-up since browser security protocols forced users to enable multimedia.
  • Audio: An animation at the start of the tour was inserted to draw attention to the audio narration option.
  • Map: A link to the campus map was included in case users want a more geographic orientation.
  • Mobile: A completely new template for vertical orientation in mobile was constructed to make the virtual tours available via UCSF Mobile’s in-app browser screens.
  • Accessibility: All content needed to be recreated on the backend of the site to ensure screen readers can navigate it.

Arrival…A Few Glitches Later!

Our selected narrator—who happened to be in super high demand—delivered the audio files on the day of the tour launch, so a mad dash ensued to manually splice the audio into unique MP3 files once received!

After incorporating a beautiful edit of drone footage at the eleventh hour, UCSF launched its first-ever virtual campus tours mid April 2021 to coincide with Alumni Weekend.

Final Stop

UCSF leadership has remarked this project was a great cross UCSF collaboration, involving teams from the four professional schools, the Graduate Division, research, Campus Life Services, and UCSF Health. And while it’s only been a year since the debut, updates to the first batch of virtual tours are already in order, given the recent opening of some new buildings! But the steering committee is prepared to reconvene and will be better equipped to develop the next set of campus location tours in the coming months.

This significant milestone achievement would not have been possible without the dedication of steering committee members Louise Chu, Nada Hansen, Kathleen Hennessy (with a special shoutout to Susan Merrell), Gillian Grisman, Suzie Kirrane, Christine Shaff, Sara Shaffer (lead), Katherine Tam, and Stephanie Yee.

Stephanie Yee
Stephanie Yee is alumni engagement coordinator, University Development and Alumni Relations, UC San Francisco.

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