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Understanding and Commissioning a Virtual Tour – a Beginner’s Guide

A virtual tour is a complete 360-degree view of a space. The user can feel as if they’re standing within a space, and then can control their movement within the area. They can look up above them, at the floor below them, and all around. Users are also able to zoom in and out, giving them the ability to focus in on areas of interest. Each virtual tour is usually made up from a number of photographs which are ‘stitched’ together

Where are they used?
One of the most familiar applications of virtual tours is by estate agents. These virtual tours tend to be small scale, and low-quality, as price is the biggest issue.

High-resolution virtual tours that can be viewed at full screen are the best option for any organisation for whom quality is important. A hotel group will use virtual tours to show the potential clients the quality of the rooms. Other examples of potential virtual tour customers include conference centres, museums, hospitals, car manufacturers, football clubs, universities, architects and property developers – all of whom benefit by showing off their space to its best advantage.

What extra features can a virtual tour have?
You can use the virtual tours in many different ways on your site, depending on how you’d like to display them. Virtual tours can be linked to a floorplan, so that users can feel orientated and choose how and where to move within a space. This is particularly useful for architects or property developers. Eye Revolution have created an example of this type for The Edison bar and lounge.

A Google Maps interface enables users to see virtual tours that are geographically removed from each other – a large number of virtual tours can all be linked via a map. Britannia Vista offers an excellent example of this type of implementation.

Many virtual tour providers will also be able to integrate hotspots – special links within a virtual tour. You may even want to include an audio script, a soundtrack or even some video in your virtual tours.

Talk to the virtual tour companies about the project, and they will be able to suggest interfaces that may be appropriate for you.

What’s the advantage of a virtual tour on your website?
A virtual tour which is relevant to the viewer can help both build a brand and sell a product. So in the case of an architect’s website, where part of their portfolio is available to be toured, the viewer is able to see the quality of the architect’s work, choose where they’d like to focus on (rather than being dependent on the ‘right’ stills being provided) and then zoom in and see the small details. This gives the company a big advantage over their competitors as potential clients get a better insight into the product on offer.

How should I choose a virtual tour provider?
The good news is that there’s a lot of choice out there. The bad news is that there are some very poor providers too. The best bet is to make a shortlist of virtual tour providers and then have a very thorough look through their portfolios. Look for ‘stitching errors’ – places where the photographs that make up the tour don’t line up properly. Look for clarity – are the lines clear and sharp, or fuzzy, pixellated or indistinct? Can you see odd colours which don’t look ‘right’, particularly on edges of objects in the tours. Check for over-exposure – so can you see through windows, or are they all white and hazy? Can you look around a full 360-degrees, or are the ceilings and floors blocked off?

If you’re looking for a high quality virtual tour, it’s vital that your providers are good photographers. If they’re poor photographers, nothing will make your virtual tour look as good as it should.

So, going through their portfolio to make sure that you’re happy with the quality of their virtual tour work and that they’ve got a good range of clients and experience is vital to the success of your virtual tour project.

Is it expensive?
This depends on the type of project that you’re commissioning. Talk to the providers you’ve shortlisted, describe your project in as much detail as possible and ask them to quote. A ‘menu’ of prices (where you can see the cost per virtual tour, rather than the total cost for 10 virtual tours) is often useful, as it enables you to compare like with like.

The important thing to note is that the old adage still applies – if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! Good virtual tour providers will be investing in new equipment, training and software on an ongoing basis. They will also be expert in retouching, and can use their skills to ensure your tours look as good as they can. This investment means that you get the best possible end result, and as you’re going to live with it on your website – possibly for a number of years – you want to make sure that the virtual tours are perfect. If you’re being offered a deal that seems to good to be true, again, look back carefully at the portfolio and assess the quality again.

How do I get it on my website?
Your virtual tour provider will provide you with files which can be uploaded to your site, or they can be hosted on your virtual tour provider’s server. They will be able to liaise with your web designer to ensure the smooth delivery and upload of the virtual tours.

There are several plugins through which people can view virtual tours (for example, Flash, QuickTime, Java, Shockwave and OpenGL). Flash’s high penetration (97% in developed markets) tends to make it the main choice, however, providers will be able to discuss the best options with you.

So finally…
Good virtual tours that stand the test of time and enhance your site visitors’ experience will be likely to increase sales, will encourage people to return, and may over time increase the traffic to your website.

Beth Menzies is a Director of eyerevolution.co.uk – a leading London-based virtual tour company. Prior to joining Eye Revolution she worked in top 10 Advertising Agencies handling advertising for clients like Volkswagen, Nissan, Hertz, Axa, Carlton TV & Odeon Cinemas.

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