Virtual tour nearly as good as a visit to campus

Jesse Rogers

February 26, 2007

For Dennis Culhane, a student in India should be able to see every nook and cranny of Locust Walk, down to the very last uneven brick.

A professor in the Urban Studies Department, Culhane is in the midst of developing a three-dimensional computer model of campus that will show see every detail on and around Penn’s campus – both present and future.

When complete, the model will allow viewers to make their way through campus and the surrounding streets, something Culhane says will be invaluable in planning Penn’s eastward expansion.

“This is the ultimate map,” Culhane said. “This huge expansion is being planned that is going to have a huge impact on Penn’s campus and the community, and this is a great way to model what that impact would be.”

The project came to life after Culhane read about an effort to make a virtual model of Center City Philadelphia. When the Center City project was launched two years ago, it made Philadelphia one of only three cities to undertake such plans (Milan and Tel Aviv being the others).

In Culhane’s version, each building required dozens of photographs, something that could only be accomplished from the air: Planes photographed campus throughout the fall of 2004 to collect enough data.

In addition to urban planning, Culhane says the model could be a boon for international recruitment, especially for those students who can’t always schedule campus visits.

“Students looking for housing can actually look to see what the street they would rent on would look like,” he said.

But eventually, Culhane has even bigger plans; he says the model could be the first truly interactive Web site, with users able to click on different buildings and access different departments at Penn.

“You could go to the virtual model and get audio or video clips of the dean,” he said.

“The ability to just click on Meyerson Hall, click on the office where professor ‘X’ lives – that will be an option as well,” said Marlen Kokaz, who coordinates researchers and programmers working for Culhane.

“The sense to be able to walk on the streets of [West] Philadelphia” is the whole point, she added.

College admissions counselors say that the model, if completed, would indeed help students who live far from Penn to get a feel for campus.

Bev Taylor, director of the New York-based Ivy Coach, said the program has the potential to be helpful, but “to a degree.”

“It’s certainly helpful with international students, and with students that live far away,” she said.

But the risk does exist, says Sally Rubenstone, director of College Confidential, that students will begin to rely on the models to judge a school.

“I’m weary of students feeling something like this is a substitute for a visit to campus,” she said.