Incoming first-years may see rooms in 3-D

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Brown student’s business venture could vastly reduce the shock incoming freshmen feel when they see their dorm rooms for the first time.

Digital Wingman, Inc., co-founded by Jake Powers ’09 in January 2007 to produce three-dimensional renderings of dorm rooms for colleges and universities nationwide, could create images of Brown residence halls, said Richard Bova, senior associate dean for the Office of Residential Life.

The renderings give future residents a full picture of their rooms from different angles, including not only the size and shape of the room but also the furniture supplied. The images can also include the actual textures of the furniture.

Brown could purchase renderings from Digital Wingman to have them available as soon as next fall, Bova said.

“I would so much look forward to being able to provide (the renderings) to students,” he said, adding that it could help incoming first-years and current students entering the housing lottery.

Bova said he has asked the company to submit a proposal for evaluation this spring. He said he has “no sense of cost,” and that the project could be funded either through ResLife or through special funding. ResLife had to “verify and cull” the floor-plan data for Brown’s more than 2,500 rooms into a special computer-aided design format to provide to Digital Wingman. Based on this information, the company will be able to create an accurate proposal, including the potential cost, he said.

The business’s clients include Belmont, North Carolina State, Stanford and Johnson and Wales universities, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Georgia, the University of California at Berkeley and Williams College, Powers said.

To produce the images, Digital Wingman gathers traditional floor plan information on residence halls as well as photographs of the interiors of the rooms, Powers said. He said it then compiles the information into graphics using a software package. Once the images are ready, clients can log into a special “communications center” on the company’s Web site, view the renderings and submit comments or requests for changes.

The price of each rendering ranges from about $150 for a single-occupancy room to about $400 for an apartment, Powers said. A single can be rendered in as little as an hour, but the time goes up “exponentially” with room size, he said.

Brian Rider, Powers’ business partner and a junior at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, came up with the idea of 3-D renderings to replace the traditional floor plans universities often post on their Web sites after realizing that such plans were “inadequate” for students, Rider said. He contacted the housing office at Grand Valley and pitched the idea, soon earning his first client, he said.

Rider, a computer science and finance major, said he then invited Powers to handle Wingman’s business end as a partner. The two played football together in high school, as right and left tight ends, and also took an entrepreneurship class together.

The “shared experiences” bonded the two and “helped (them) into the business world,” Rider said. “You don’t want to start up a company with just anybody,” he said.

Powers, a Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship concentrator, said he jumped at the opportunity. Rider “knew that I would be interested in starting a business,” he said.

The renderings have been met with warm reception from school officials with whom they have worked.

“Over and over, our greatest challenge in talking to incoming students is giving them a sense” of what their rooms will be like, said Ed Kelly, student affairs specialist in housing administration at the University of Georgia. Digital Wingman’s renderings “bring the experience to life,” he said, providing “amazing levels of detail.”

“Even in rooms that are very similar in different halls, you would see the subtle differences,” Kelly said. “They were able to really make it happen for us in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

“It’s been a huge part in helping us to tell our story,” he added.

Johnson and Wales has been e-mailing the images to incoming students because they cannot post the images on their Web site until it is redesigned, said Tara Leamy, associate director for housing and operations at JWU. She said students are often surprised and appreciative to receive such detailed images.

“They’re not expecting us to say, ‘Hey, here’s what a double looks like in that building,'” she said. “We know they’re going to be a huge hit” when posted online.

Leamy said Wingman’s rates were affordable. “We operate on a tight budget, and it fit easily into our budget,” she said.

Powers and Rider are working on a more interactive version of the renderings that would allow students to place and arrange furniture from major retailers directly into the depiction of their room, Powers said. He said they hope to solicit outside investment to fund their continued growth.

Students seemed to appreciate the renderings’ potential at Brown.

“A lot of students are scared of the lottery,” said Sophie Berner-Eyde ’11. “Having (3-D images) would help them make a more intelligent choice.”

Lea Mouallem ’08 echoed Berner-Eyde’s words. “A lot of rooms have weird layouts here at Brown,” she said. Some Vartan Gregorian Quad suites have bay windows, while others do not, she said, and she did extensive research before last year’s lottery to find out which rooms to pick. “Some people didn’t get better rooms, even though those rooms were available,” she said. “I guess (3-D images) would save a lot of research time.”

But not all students think purchasing the renderings would be a good idea. “There’s better ways to spend resources than on 3-D floor plans,” Alena Davidoff-Gore ’10 said.

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