The new UNC Visitors Center offers a 21st-century interactive welcome to the nation’s oldest public university. Inside the sleek, modular location at the corner of Franklin Street and Porthole Alley, modern touchscreen technology allows visitors to create their own experiences, from learning about notable Tar Heels to texting themselves directions to spots they’ve identified on an interactive campus map.
“The primary purpose of the UNC Visitors Center is to demonstrate to the citizens of North Carolina the good work that happens on campus every day,” said Rhonda Beatty, director of the Visitors Center. “And now we have all these interactive elements that get very detailed and personal to tell that story and bring it to life for everybody.”
Location, location, location
Formerly inside the Morehead Planetarium, the Visitors Center relocated in May 2019 when that building began an extensive renovation. The center had a temporary pop-up home in the rotunda of musical Hill Hall for the past 10 months as the reimagination of its own space continued at 134 E. Franklin St.
The Visitors Center has welcomed guests at its new home since a Feb. 25 preview event. But the official opening is set for March 6, following an evening ribbon-cutting ceremony March 5.
Situated next to Porthole Alley, this tangible connection of town and gown couldn’t be in a more iconic setting.
More importantly, Franklin Street foot traffic is expected to drastically increase the center’s current annual average of 4,500 walk-in guests. An exterior display case, initially occupied by an exhibit highlighting creations from the campus’s BeAM makerspaces, catches the eyes of passersby.
Or they may glimpse Carolina blue walls through the storefront window — wait, is that Rameses?
Let’s go inside
Yes, a lifelike, life-size Rameses replica poses for selfies in the greeting area, offering visitors the ultimate Tar Heel photo op in front of a blue-toned mural of the Old Well and an oversized greeting of the words “It’s a great day to be a Tar Heel.” Look up to see the distinctive diamonds of Carolina’s argyle pattern incorporated in the ceiling’s design.
To the left of the mascot, a 13-minute “Welcome to Carolina” video runs continuously on a big flat screen. Visitors can catch separate segments on student life, traditions, research, academics, arts, innovation and study abroad or settle atop one of the blue-patterned poufs to watch the whole movie.
The next stop is the Notable Tar Heels interactive monitor, a screen that shows photos and short bios of 160+ people who have left their Heelprints on campus. Visitors select the Tar Heel they want to see by searching one of eight categories or by touching an image on the screen.
Close by is the student portrait wall, four monitors arranged to create ever-changing combinations of 200+ student portraits. Text on the screen describes students based on the reasons they chose Carolina, like “third-generation Tar Heel” or “future scientist.”
Next, it’s the visitors’ turn to describe themselves with the interactive visitor hometown map. By typing in their hometown’s name, they activate a Tar Heel pin in that location on the onscreen map, which expands to show places in North Carolina, in the United States and around the world.
On the opposite wall, the social media feed and events calendar displays real-time information from five Carolina social media accounts as well as a listing of current campus events open to the public.
The final feature on this inside tour is the interactive campus map. With this multi-user interface, one guest can display information-packed pop-ups about sites across campus while another can request and text themselves walking directions from the Visitors Center to any campus location.
“We were looking for a new, innovative way to share the information that we’ve always shared,” Beatty said. “These interactive elements have raised the technology level of the Visitors Center.”
The human touch
The center is also the gathering spot for the Sense of Place tour, an informative hour-long walking tour led at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays by Visitors Center staff, starting at McCorkle Place and ending at Kenan Football Stadium. About 4,000 people take these tours annually.
Sense of Place is the only tour given by the Visitors Center, although it is a tour customized for whatever group is taking it, from middle-schoolers to master’s students. (But not prospective undergraduates — Undergraduate Admissions leads those tours.) They also take reservations for the Black and Blue tour, focused on African American history at the University and led on select Friday afternoons by lecturer Robert Porter.
Leading tours and serving visitors is still at the heart of the Visitors Center’s mission, even with all the fancy technology at the Franklin Street location. Near the center of the new space is the information desk, a low-tech station where staff and student employees greet the public and answer questions. They also hand out maps, both the full-size ones and a foldout tucked into the back of a colorful new pocket-size visitors guide. The guide describes 35 points of interest and suggests a route for a self-guided tour,
“The technology will never remove the human element of that interaction at the desk,” Beatty said. And, as if to prove her point, a visitor walks up, looking for directions to Hill Hall.
“I have somebody who went to school here with me, and she didn’t know,” the visitor said.
“I can tell you how to get to Hill Hall,” Beatty begins. “Actually, let me show you.” Together they go to the interactive campus map, select Hill Hall and get walking directions. “Now go ahead and text those directions to yourself.”
She does and then is off to join the rest of her group.
Beatty smiles as she watches her leave. The human touch and touchscreen technology have combined to serve another satisfied visitor.
“And that is why we’re here,” she said.