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U.S. Air Force Academy Recruits Cadets With a Dose of Virtual Reality

Prospective students can take an animated 3-D tour of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado as avatars that run, jump, and salute in a virtual online world.

A new virtual campus built by the U.S. Air Force Academy lets students take tours online and gives administrators greater control over those visits than previous virtual environments have.

It is one of a new generation of online virtual tours that attempts to replicate the look and feel of a video game, but without requiring special software, as Second Life and other mainstream virtual worlds do.

“We have to recruit from all 50 states every year, and we wanted a way for kids to be able to get a feel for some of the campus if they can’t make it out here to visit,” said LeAnn Nelson, chief of marketing and media at the academy.

The point of the tour, according to Ms. Nelson, is not to draw more applicants, but to motivate those who are already interested in the academy to complete its extensive application process, which includes a Congressional nomination and physical examinations. Part of the tour’s efforts to engage students during their stay in the virtual world include games like a flight simulator and a parachute jump, which Ms. Nelson stressed are purely for entertainment purposes.

“Gaming in our nation is top—everybody games,” Ms. Nelson said. “It was a way of relating to kids in a way that they already understand.” She pointed to the past popularity of virtual-reality environments like Second Life and said the academy’s tour was a way to show off its high-tech reputation to prospective students.

A growing number of colleges that built virtual campuses in Second Life for campus tours and other purposes are looking to alternative systems, in part, because of a desire to have greater control over who can access any given space.

The Air Force Academy placed several controls on its new virtual campus. Prospective students cannot visit unless they receive an e-mail invite, for one (invites are sent after students begin the application process). And unless students take a guided tour with an administrator, the interactivity of the experience is limited, out of concerns by administrators that people might use the site inappropriately.

The academy sent out e-mail invitations to the secure virtual world to 1,100 students in April and received about 400 online visitors. The cost of building and hosting the system was $500,000, and the academy plans to use the same tour for the next few years.

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