Guide to Virtual Tours and Choosing a Virtual Tour Provider
What is a virtual tour?
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 360 virtual tours is by estate agents. These tours tend to be small scale, and low-quality, as price is the biggest issue.
High-resolution 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 them to show the potential clients the quality of the rooms. Other examples of potential 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. They 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 – click the link to see an example of a Floorplan virtual tour.
A Google Maps interface enables users to see tours that are geographically removed from each other; it is especially useful when there are a large number of tours that can all be linked via a map. Click the link to view virtual tours linked by Google Maps.
Many virtual tour providers will also be able to integrate hotspots – special links within a tour. Visit the link to view an example of a virtual tours with hotspots. You may even want to include an audio script, a soundtrack, sound effects or even some video or a live webcam.
Talk to the 360 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 360 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 360 tour, it’s vital that your providers are good photographers. If they’re poor photographers, nothing will make your tour look as good as it should.
So, going through their portfolio to make sure that you’re happy with the quality of their work and that they’ve got a good range of clients and experience is vital to the success of your project.
Is it expensive?
This depends on the type of 360 project that you’re commissioning. Talk to the virtual tour 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 tour, rather than the total cost for 10 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 images 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 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 tours.
There are several plugins through which people can view 360 virtual tours (for example, Flash, QuickTime, Java, Shockwave and OpenGL). Flash’s high penetration (over 99% in developed markets, September 2010) tends to make it the main choice, however, providers will be able to discuss the best options with you.
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.