Explore Virtual Reality at a Library Near You
Virtual Reality — or VR for short — is everywhere these days, from Hollywood with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster hit movie Ready Player One to your local public library. That’s right - one of the best places to learn about virtual reality, augmented reality and everything in between is the library, where introducing new technologies to the community is becoming as popular as summer reading and storytime.
Although Ready Player One is set in the future, the great thing about virtual reality is that it is available here and now in the present. If you haven’t yet taken the virtual plunge but would like to do so, head to the library and grab a headset!
Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality- A Quick Primer
First thing’s first, however: what’s the difference between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed (or sometimes blended) reality? You may have seen these terms used interchangeably, but each category represents a different kind of experience utilizing its own hardware and software.
Virtual reality is a digital environment generated by computers which is meant to simulate actual experience. When Neo jacks into The Matrix, for example, that is an example of virtual reality - he finds himself a computer-generated world which has been designed to fool him and the rest of the human race that it is in fact real life. On the other hand, augmented reality — or AR for short — uses technology to superimpose digital information onto the real world. Remember in The Terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable cyborg looked around at things and his onboard computer automatically identified them for him? That’s how augmented reality works.
Mixed or blended reality is where virtual and augmented reality meet. As VR and AR both have their strengths and weaknesses, many technologies are designed to mix and match functionalities depending on the nature of the task at hand. In a mixed reality environment you may be interacting with a virtual reality simulation which has been projected onto real space via augmented reality. Imagine a mechanic learning how to repair a car this way — or a surgeon demonstrating how to operate on a virtual patient! This is the future promise of mixed reality.
A Fantastic Voyage Is Waiting For You
In the Wonder Lab at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut, the library community is invited to explore immersive 3-D simulations of the human body and other educational materials using the HTC Vive and one of their newer Samsung Odyssey mixed reality headsets. Ferguson Library President Alice Knapp says about the potential of the new technology: “What excites me about virtual reality is that this is really about content and we have always been in the content business. One of [the library’s] many new roles in this world is to help people learn new skills. Part of what we need to do is to stay a little bit ahead of the curve so people, as they hear about virtual reality, can come in and try it.”
Just a dozen miles up the road from Stamford, The Westport Library MakerSpace has been heavily invested in virtual reality since the first-generation Oculus Rift headset shipped from its Kickstarter. They offer regular demonstrations of the Rift, the HTC Vive and Playstation VR as well as conducting hands-on workshops with Google Cardboard, a simple and inexpensive VR platform which only requires a smartphone and a cardboard viewing device to deliver a compelling virtual reality experience. One of the most popular VR applications is Tiltbrush, a program for the HTC Vive which allows the user not just to create art in three dimensions, but to walk around and interact with it while doing so.
Libraries have always been spaces where new ideas can be freely explored — not just through reading books but through experiential learning as well. It is not surprising therefore that the tech industry has taken notice of this in recent years and partnered with libraries to help introduce new technologies. For example, microprocessor giant AMD has designated four library systems (in Taylor, Texas; Cromwell, Connecticut; Boulder City, Nevada and Santa Clara, California) to serve as “VR Labs,” where they will work in collaboration with the tech industry to help their patrons learn about virtual reality.
In June of 2017 Oculus also announced that they would be partnering with the California State Library to bring 100 Rifts and Oculus Ready PCs to 90 different libraries throughout the state. “Public libraries provide safe, supportive environments that are available and welcoming to everyone,” explains Oculus Education Program Manager Cindy Ball. “They help level the playing field by providing educational opportunities and access to technology that may not be readily available in the community households. Libraries share the love — at scale.”
Resource Sharing at its Best
Even libraries without the budget or grant opportunities on their own for such high-tech toys are finding ways to bring virtual reality programming to their communities. At the Islip Public Library in New York they are able to leverage the resources of their local borrowing network — in this case the Suffolk Cooperative Lending Program — to bring the HTC Vive hardware to their library for several days. As shrinking library budgets for conventional library materials such as books and DVDs have lead to cooperative solutions, so too have libraries been able to collectively own and access cutting edge technology. For example, the SWON Libraries Consortium in the Greater Cincinnati area loans such items as 3–d printers, Little Bits and MaKey MaKey kits, programmable robots including Ozobots as well as the lovable Dash & Dot, and of course VR headsets such as the Playstation VR and Google Cardboard compatible goggles. Clearly there is demand for libraries to provide these kinds of technologies to their communities, so it is heartening to see that libraries will find a way to do so either on their own or as part of a larger cooperative effort.
Learning Through Doing- VR, Experiential Learning and Coding
Virtual reality is not just a great hook for getting people interested in technology, but the very real promise of virtual, augmented and mixed reality applications and their potential impact on science, industry and commerce is a great introduction to the world of development and coding. For example, the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky offers classes in game design using the latest in virtual reality game engines. Many libraries also participate in events such as the Global Game Jam, where every January groups around the world convene in a 48-hour marathon session to pitch, design and create a game from scratch, including VR games. Between offering classes and hosting events like the Global Game Jam, libraries are increasingly emerging as places where new technologies aren’t just embraced as fads but systematically supported with programs which speak to the changing needs of the modern workplace.
Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Playstation VR- Which Is Best?
While it seems that there are new commercial VR headsets making their debut every day, there are currently three major platforms in the virtual reality marketplace which you are likely to see currently on display in libraries:
- Oculus Rift. The brainchild of Palmer Luckey, who invented the Oculus Rift in his parents’ garage in response to his impatience with the tech industry for neglecting the development of virtual reality, Oculus is now a multi-billion dollar company owned by Facebook. The earliest iterations of the Rift were sit-down only, difficult to set up and had stringent hardware requirements that made it near impossible to run on the average PC, but since then the Rift is now more mobile, easier to set up and cheaper to buy as prices have come down significantly, making it a strong competitor for the upstart HTC Vive.
- HTC Vive. The Vive may not have been the first VR headset to hit the market, but due to its integration with popular game designer and virtual software platform provider Valve as well as the fact that it allowed the user to walk around and interact with a large virtual space, the Vive quickly gained popularity with virtual reality enthusiasts who were frustrated by the Rift’s early limitations. The downside to the Vive, aside from its cost as the most expensive of the three platforms, is that it requires a fair amount of space to provide an optimal VR experience which currently rules out many living rooms.
- Playstation VR. Technically an accessory for the Playstation 4 gaming console, the Playstation VR unit is not nearly as powerful or immersive as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, but it is cheaper than the other two platforms (especially if you already own a Playstation console), easier to set up, and comes with a catalog of hundreds of games ready for play. As the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have been steadily and aggressively improving their platforms, the Playstation VR has remained somewhat static since launch and is starting to show its age compared to the other two offerings.
Which is best? It’s hard to say at the moment, especially as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have become more and more similar over time in terms of look, feel and price. Virtual reality is so popular right now with consumers that there probably isn’t a wrong answer for libraries — even libraries which aren’t able to invest in expensive VR hardware and the latest PC rig can engage their communities using Google Cardboard.
Google Cardboard- 21st Century VR using 19th Century Technology
Remember the stereoscope? This handheld device created the illusion of a three-dimensional image by tricking the user into combining two pictures taken from two slightly different angles. The popular vintage View-Master slide viewing toy is an example of a 20th century stereoscope. Google Cardboard is an application for your smartphone that uses the same stereoptic principle, splitting the image on your phone screen so that you can view the two differing perspectives through a device. The original Google Cardboard, introduced at the 2014 Google I/O conference, was literally a piece of folded cardboard and a set of plastic lenses, although now you can purchase Cardboard-compatible headsets of varying composition and quality- including a special edition of the original ViewMaster toy that uses your smartphone instead of a slide wheel!
What Are You Waiting For? Insert Smartphone to Continue
Libraries all over the country have been offering workshops on how to use Google Cardboard, as it provides an amazing entry point into the world of virtual reality for little if any cost, as sometimes the community already has Cardboard-compatible viewers of their own. For example, the New York Times sent each of its subscribers their own version of a Google Cardboard viewer to allow them to access online VR content; other companies such as Verizon have released special edition Cardboard-compatible viewers as tie-ins to popular movies such as the Star Wars saga. Some libraries have even used the instructions available to offer hands-on workshops where library patrons get to build their own Google Cardboard viewers, a great example of how high tech can converge with arts and crafts in the library space.
Whatever your inclination or interest in virtual reality — whether you’re a novice trying to wrap your ahead around the latest technology or an experienced hand looking for a community to develop and hone your VR skills — the library is a wonderful starting point in your quest for more knowledge. And if you can’t find a library in your area with programming featuring virtual reality, don’t be afraid to ask your librarians to offer one!