A view of a switchback road from near top of Pike's Peak, Colo., one of the many places residents ca visit via. virtual tour. 

May 29 2020

Virtual Tour Technology: How State and Local Governments Use It

360-degree virtual tours can provide immersive experiences to residents who cannot access sites in person.

Throughout the spring, as state and local governments shut down or closed museums, parks and other public gathering places to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, millions of people were unable to physically visit their favorite attractions.

However, they were not entirely shut out. Thanks to virtual tour technology, state and local governments have been able to give residents access to such sites and buildings. The technology, which can provide users with a 3D virtual tour or a 360-degree tour experience, can help keep residents connect to their local haunts and lay the foundation for future visits, which can drive revenue for state and local governments.

Such technology may be less pressing now, as states start to reopen their economies and sites that have been shut down. However, if governments re-enact lockdowns in response to a second wave of the virus, or if residents do not want to go in person to sites because of health concerns, virtual tour technology will be a go-to option for many agencies.

“The virtual tour is a fantastic opportunity for people to research, watch that dream,” Melissa Norris, travel adviser for AAA Club Alliance tells WVVA.com. “It might be somewhere they’ve never been before, it might be somewhere they want to go. That’s the best way to check out a destination and listen to the professional guide talking about all the awesome things that you can see and do and put that on your bucket list.”

State and local governments have been using virtual tour technology to give users access to everything from state parks to state-funded museums and official state and local buildings. 

What Is a Virtual Tour?

Virtual tours are nothing new, but they have become more immersive as users’ smartphones and tablets have grown in capability, and as virtual reality headsets have become more commonplace.

A virtual tour is “a spherical format based simulation of a physical location,” according to a Medium post from VeeR VR, a VR content company.

“It’s generally made up of images grouped together or videos with linking hotspots. Bespoke virtual tours can contain other media such as sound effects, music, narration, and text,” the post notes “Unlike old media’s restraints, it offers a level of interactivity and decision-making to the consumer, and is a vastly more valuable tool for exhibiting a business location, event or location.”

A 360-degree virtual tour, created by a photographer specialized in taking such photos, allows visitors to enter into a physical location or building and walk around, virtually, via their smartphone, tablet, computer or VR headset, without leaving the comfort of their home.

“Changes in camera technology over the last 24 years — such as digital image processing, improved lenses, and panoramic cameras — have led to ‘virtual tour’ becoming an all-encompassing term, not specific to any one mode of photography or videography, or … 3D-image generation,” explains 3explor.com.

With 360-degree virtual tours, users can get that immersive experience. “Black Mesa State Park up in the panhandle has a really beautiful 360 virtual tour,” Keli Clark, programs officer for Oklahoma State Parks, tells The Oklahoman. “It gives you a tour of the park itself, it gives you a tour of the area, but the 360 view I like the best is probably the night sky. It shows the millions of stars that you can see when you’re out there at that beautiful park.

“You can see what the park is all about ... and it shows you how diverse the landscape in Oklahoma is just by going to all those virtual tours,” Clark adds.

READ MORE: Find out how public libraries have been expanding digital services.

Virtual Tour Software and Technology

The heart of any virtual tour is the software that powers it. One of the leaders in the market, 3DVista, notes that virtual tours can be turned “into comprehensive teaching and testing tools with discovery hotspots (‘treasure hunts’), question or quiz cards, integrated scoring, reporting systems and [Learning Management System] integration.”

Hotspots, according to 3DVista, “are the essence of a virtual tour” because they allow users to “click on objects and discover information and details inside the scene.” Users can open a pop-up detailed image, a 3D model, a purchase window, a multifaceted info window or a website; they can also download a file or play audio and video.

3DVista says its software is compatible with panoramas from all 360-degree and DSLR cameras, including the Insta360 ONE X, Ricoh Theta C/S/V/Z1, Insta360 Pro/Pro 2/Titan, QooCoam 8K and GoPro Fusion/Max.

Keli Clark, Programs Officer, Oklahoma State Parks
You can see what the park is all about ... and it shows you how diverse the landscape in Oklahoma is just by going to all those virtual tours.”

Keli Clark Programs Officer, Oklahoma State Parks

Other kinds of 3D-imaging software are less complex. ViewMake requires just an Android-based smartphone or tablet.

“In a few simple steps, you can take photos and create stunning panoramic images and/or virtual tours easily and free of charge,” the company notes. “You can also connect a Ricoh Theta S, an Insta360 Pro or Samsung Gear 360 and remotely manage the camera by shooting and geolocating 360-degree photos without appearing in the image.”

According to VeeR VR, there are multiple cloud-based virtual tour solutions, including Roundme, Ocurus and Lapentor. Cloud computing can help provide the needed racecourse to support 4K and higher resolutions for virtual tours and ensure higher fidelity and a better user experience.

“There are now multiple ways to consume a virtual tour, from mobile device finger scrubbable or gyroscope controlled, to desktop mouse or touch-screen interaction, and now head mounted displays (HMD) with various input methods,” VeeR VR notes. “With the increased pick-up rate and usage of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality HMD’s, it has become vital to offer at least 4k images and video with 6k and even 8k resolution.”

Capterra, which provides research and user reviews on software applications, lists other prominent virtual tour software, including Concept3D, Fusion, LiveTour, My360, CloudPano and more.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how state and local agencies can take government meetings online. 

How State and Local Governments Use Virtual Tours

Numerous state and local governments have availed themselves of virtual tour technology. Earlier this month, Google launched a virtual tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Jenni Tetzlaff, the museum’s director of integrated marketing, tells the Milwaukee Business Journal that the project, which has been in the works for four years, seemed to make sense to launch now as the museum remains closed due to the pandemic. 

The Milwaukee Public Museum partnered with Google on a virtual tour experience. Source: Milwaukee Public Museum

“We just thought it’d be a great way for the community to be able to interact with MPM and see those favorite exhibits,” Tetzlaff says.

Visitors can use Google Maps to see the museum’s Hidden Wisconsin exhibit, which was a temporary exhibit in 2016 and includes many artifacts that are too fragile to be displayed publicly. 

In Colorado, there are numerous virtual tours of Pikes Peak, the 14,115-foot mountain that soars above Colorado Springs, The New York Times notes. Users can virtually ride the cog railway, and hike up or drive up the Pikes Peak Highway, which is maintained by the city of Colorado Springs.

In Richmond, Va., the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, a state history museum and research library operated by the 190-year-old Virginia Historical Society, offers visitors multiple virtual tours covering topics such as the state’s history, the geography of Virginia, the state’s struggle for racial equality and female activism in the state.

In Austin, Texas, thanks to YouVisit, an immersive virtual reality platform, users can stroll from the “elegant grounds of the Texas Capitol to the summit of Mount Bonnell and even to the packed, smoky barbecue pit of Salt Lick BBQ,” the Times says. 

Although virtual tours are no substitute for seeing museums or natural wonders in person, they still provide value to residents during this time.

“We still want people to be able to enjoy the museum, enjoy collections,” Tetzlaff says. “We’ve gotten some really great feedback from teachers. It’s ongoing, but we’re really enjoying it, and hopefully the community is too.”

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