Step Inside a Virtual Residence Hall

When it comes to envisioning yourself in your new university home, a picture really just doesn’t cut it. After all, this is the residence hall you’ll be living in for the next academic year of your life. You’ve got to be able to really see yourself there before you make any big decisions.

UNC Asheville has partnered with Better Than Unicorns, a local virtual reality studio, to create cutting-edge virtual reality tours of every residence hall on campus—including the ones that haven’t been finished yet.

It starts with downloading and opening the Gazal app, and then either donning a virtual reality (VR) headset or glasses—or just using your smart phone—and entering the virtual UNC Asheville.

“Let’s say you pick Governors Hall,” explained Better Than Unicorns founder and “Big Chief” Brett A McCall. “It’ll take you outside of Governors Hall, inside what’s called a photosphere. A photosphere is a 360 degrees, up down, left right, all the way around you, completely immersive image that you can look in all directions for what it looks like in that location.”

Using icons placed around the virtual environment, students can navigate their way around the residence hall.

“We believe that this creates a more interactive experience so that the students can actually see themselves in the rooms,” said Melanie Fox, associate dean of students in residential education. “Whereas when you’re looking at a two-dimensional photograph, it’s really hard to picture yourself living there. And in the virtual reality situation, you can actually move around the room, you can see it as if you were standing in the middle of it.”

In addition to the rooms themselves, users can move around common areas of the residence halls, such as community kitchens and study lounges, as well as around the outside of the buildings.

The technology allows students to ask the important questions when it comes to deciding where they want to live on campus, McCall said.

“Do I see myself in this room? Do I see myself in this residence hall? Here I am standing here virtually, do I like myself here? Do I see my life being lived in this space?” he said. “Students will get a greater sense of confidence around the decision that they make about where they live.”

This innovative experience is one students are unlikely to find elsewhere, McCall said.

“UNCA has made a move that puts them in front of most universities and really, most brick and mortar locations in the world,” McCall said. “I think this is like a one-percenter kind of a move they’ve made by doing this. It’s very cutting edge, I think by the end of this year, there will still only be 5 percent of the population that have done it.”

All UNC Asheville students who sign up for housing next year will receive a pair of UNC Asheville VR glasses that attach to their smart phones, giving them a more immersive VR experience. They’ll also have the chance to try the full headsets at the Residential Education information tables in Brown Hall during lunchtime throughout the beginning of February.

Students can also get a virtual reality sneak peek of the new residence halls currently being constructed on campus.

“We got some information from our architects, from our designers, and then Better Than Unicorns built a 3D model and exported 360 images called 'renderspheres,'" explained Barnwell.

“It’s very realistic,” he said. “Having been in the residence halls myself and looking at what’s in the app, it mirrors it almost to a T. We were able to take the furniture that’s going to be in the new residence hall, the finishes, the colors, the fabrics, the paint, and what you see in the app is what it’s going to be.”

The new residence halls, which will be called “The Woods,” are UNC Asheville’s first apartment-style residence halls, and feature full kitchens and single and double rooms. Each building will be named after a native tree—aspen, beech, cedar, chestnut, magnolia, and willow—and UNC Asheville’s grounds management team will incorporate those trees into the landscaping around the buildings.

“As a sophomore, junior or senior, you can live in a full apartment and have all the benefits of that full apartment,” Barnwell said, “while at the same time being less than 200 yards from classes and the library and literally right next door to all of the excitement in newly renovated Highsmith. This is a big part of the on-campus advantage.”

Ensuring students find the best living situation on campus is part of ensuring their overall success in college, Fox said.

“The research shows that students who live on campus are retained at a higher rate, they have a higher grade point average, they’re more involved in the university community and graduate at higher rates,” Fox said. “But we also know it ourselves. We can see that students flourish when they live on campus. So, we want to make that opportunity available to as many students as we possibly can.

“And we have so many options because all of our residence halls are unique in their individual personalities, that there’s something for everybody,” Fox continued. “And especially now as we open our apartment units, I think that will be an even more wide swath of students that we can reach in terms of helping them feel like this is home.”

And with the innovative VR tours, students will now have a better chance of finding that perfect residence hall that really feels like home.

“I think UNCA has made a very bold statement by saying we’re embracing this technology at this earliest adoption phase. It’s really exciting,” McCall said. “It’s something that UNCA can be proud of, and the students should be excited to be a part of, as well.”

For more information about Better Than Unicorns, visit their website, www.betterthanunicorns.com, or visit them at the Better Than Unicorns Studio/VRcade, located in the RAMP, down the hall from UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio.

Priority deadline for incoming student applications for on campus housing is May 1. The reapplication process for current residential students begins Feb. 26. For more information about on campus housing, visit housing.unca.edu.