The Challenge

Putting Houston on the map for prospective students.

Rice is a top-tier research university whose Houston location is as unconventional as its personality. A true hidden gem, the 4th largest city in the U.S. is also the most ethnically and culturally diverse, not to mention home to the largest medical center in the world. So how could we get Rice in the consideration set for high-performing students when the campus and culture are such an integral part of the Rice experience?

The Insight

When courting prospective students who’ve seen it all, surprise and entertain them.

Because the unique on-campus vibe seals the deal for many prospective students, most of whom are being aggressively marketed to by other top universities, we knew we needed to take a totally different approach to creating a virtual tour. Rice, with its unique blend of brilliant scholarship and legendary hijinks, needed a more immersive virtual experience—one with an engaging sense of discovery and a quirky sense of humor, reflective of the school itself. And we knew it from the first time we set foot on the distinctive Rice University campus, months before virtual tours became a pandemic-era necessity.

"As a tour guide, it was so exciting to see the stories we tell about our campus come to life. From the blurbs to the graphics to the user interface, the virtual experience perfectly conveys Rice's indescribable quirkiness.?

Sarah Jin Admissions Tour Guide at Rice University
Rice Virtual Tour Student on Bike

The Research

If you can't find it, make it.

From its collaborative-not-cutthroat ethos to the groundbreaking Rice Investment that offers every student with the talent and drive to succeed at Rice the financial opportunity to attend, Rice doesn’t act like other top research universities. We wanted to create a virtual experience every bit as original and unexpected. And when we couldn’t source an out-of-the-box platform that supported our vision, we rolled up our sleeves to develop our own.

Rice Virtual Tour Wireframes

The Idea

Storytelling for the explorers and problem-solvers who will thrive at Rice.

Even in a new world where in-person college visits weren’t possible, we wanted the virtual experience to still give prospective students a real taste of life at Rice. We envisioned prospects being able to explore content by area of interest. We wanted to invite further exploration by suggesting related buildings or highlighting relevant upcoming events, calling out an info session for engineering majors while the prospect is exploring the makerspace, for example. That led us to an immersive multimedia experience that could seamlessly weave together stories, videos, images and illustrations. We also wanted the experience to be flexible enough that it could continue to grow as new content was developed.

Working closely with illustrator Stuart Holmes, we brought over 100 Rice campus buildings and points of interest to life in a friendly and engaging way.


a building on Rice University campus
a building on Rice University campus
Icons of camping, food, travel, wildlife, the city, and the beach used in the Rice University Virtual Tour
Images of a donut truck, beer, campus buildings, a jersey, and an owl mascot used in the Rice University Virtual Tour

We designed an innovative, unexpected and approachable virtual experience that captures Rice’s quirky-brilliant brand.

Desktop screenshot of the virtual tour
Virtual Tour Demo Image

Smarter Experience

A sophisticated piece of software that feels like a living postcard.

We built the experience on ZenSource, a CMS framework utilizing Drupal, to offer a robust content editing experience. Location templates were created in the CMS to allow site administrators to add, remove and edit locations on the map. We integrated the saved location data from the site back end with Mapbox location objects on the front end, all of which made creating the entire map experience faster, more efficient and delivered pinpoint accuracy. 

Each map location can be connected to a detailed location page, allowing prospective students to dig deeper into location descriptions, image galleries and 360 virtual experiences—all editable via the site admin. Plus the entire experience is a prime example of where innovation meets accessibility, meeting all WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines. Finally, we pulled out all the stops on smooth animations and interactions. And befitting the Rice brand, we included some fun Easter eggs for the prospective student to find.

responsive virtual tour screenshots and devices

The Outcome

We created a standout virtual experience so different from anything else in the category, it won a coveted Webby Award!