Library shelves have long presented an opportunity for patrons to escape the real world in the pages of a good book. But at libraries all over California, visitors can travel into a whole new reality. Well, a virtual reality, at least.
In recent weeks, virtual reality stations have been rolling out to more than 90 libraries throughout the state, through a partnership announced in June between the California State Library, VR developer Oculus, and nonprofit library consortium Califa. These VR-ready PCs, equipped with Oculus Rift headsets and touch controllers, offer patrons a taste of a new technology that, despite increasingly common adoption, can still seem like science fiction to many folks.
To be part of this pilot program, libraries had to demonstrate that they were good candidates. That meant establishing an open space where headset-wearing VR users can explore without bumping into patrons who are sticking to a strictly “meatspace” library experience. Eligible libraries also needed to be able to ensure that staffers would be on hand to show visitors how to get the most out of the equipment, and to keep it clean between uses.
At libraries in Marin County, which piloted the project, tech-minded teen volunteers—the Marin WebStars—help to manage the program and shepherd new users through their first VR experiences.
“Maintenance is mainly keeping the software platform and computer updated, adjusting the play area, and adding more content for people to try out,” said Etienne Douglas, coordinator for the Marin WebStars program.
Applicants also needed to make the case for why they’d be a good host, showing why a VR-wired space was important to their users and some of the ways they might put it to work. One key to success in Marin County has been a variety of programs that appeal to several generations of users.
Young kids love virtual reality story times, while teens are most interested in exploring virtual reality games, said Marin County staffer Sharon Ho. Adults, meanwhile, tend to bask in the way technology has advanced in their lifetime.
“Many adults are amazed that the virtual world surpasses their expectation of how they envisioned it to be; everything is more realistic than imagined,” Ho told LJ. “They reflect back to the times they first heard about it but weren’t able to actually experience it, and become excited with how much the technology has advanced.”
Of course, while introducing patrons to VR is important, the programs that run on the headsets determine the educational value of the equipment. In addition to the Oculus hardware, participating libraries get access to a catalog of VR software that allows patrons to plumb the depths of the ocean, blast off to the International Space Station, and even experience the meltdown of Chernobyl firsthand.
In addition to giving library users access to the latest in educational technologies, the California project will provide Oculus with data about how people use VR in libraries. Figuring out what tools and software resonate with users and understanding how people put VR to work helps to set the stage for wider-scale deployments in similar educational environments down the line.
“It’s early days for VR and education,” said Oculus Education program manager Cindy Ball. “One of the primary objectives of the Oculus Education Team is to understand how VR can make a unique and positive impact on learning.”
Ball and her team are also sanguine that some of today’s library users will take a more active interest in VR technology—and maybe even become the developers of tomorrow.
“Hopefully, this initiative inspires more people to consider taking part in our industry, helps them understand the many different skills and opportunities involved in creating VR experiences, and lets them envision being a part of that ecosystem,” Ball told LJ.
In the four Marin County libraries that have offered patrons access to virtual reality stations since 2016, the jury is out on whether users can envision themselves as virtual reality coders. But coordinator John MacLeod said the technology is making some far-out visions more believable than ever.
“There is no way to describe the virtual reality experience,” said MacLeod. “Whether hovering over Earth flying through the vast geography and places, or delving deep underwater to swim with whales, or experiencing zero-gravity in a space station, the sense of awe and wonder cannot be matched by any other media.”