Pat Stuart

VR and libraries of the future

By Pat Stuart

What’s the latest buzz for libraries of the future? This is a topic of current interest at Powell as we plan how the new spaces will be used over the next 20 years. One equation, I’m told, is: # (of computers) + VR (virtual reality) = new technology formula Advanced technology, they say, abandons the “simple” computer and VR or virtual reality with its immersive experience is the next thing. Even though the big companies focused on it for a short time, recent discussions in the library world say that we can be pretty sure it will change the way we work, the way we learn, what we do for entertain us and just about everything. By extension, this will therefore mean changes in the offer of libraries.

But not yet.

Yet this technology has exploded, giving us all something to think about. Want a helmet? The price goes down. As for the content, it has developed enormous energy. Want to produce your own immersive reality? Pricing for a 360 camera starts at around $400. And that’s not all. According to the American Library Association, by 2025 the market for virtual reality content could reach $5.4 billion and hardware an additional $62 billion.

What a big wow!

And why is it important for libraries? Because our libraries operate as information hubs, which means that in the age of technology, libraries have increasingly become the go-to place to learn about new technologies as they emerge on line.

But virtual reality? Immersive technology? Most of us don’t even know what it is.

Essentially what I learned was that VR is a new way to convey information, entertain, and make people feel like they are interacting with others without being physically present. Potentially, in the not too distant future, the immersive virtual reality experience – say enthusiasts – will be the primary means of doing business remotely with the avatars of business people, professionals of all types, designers and of artists meeting in VR offices.

As an effective way to communicate information, virtual reality is already here. Filmmakers began doing immersive creative storytelling with a VR project already selected for the Cannes Film Festival, while newsrooms experimented with immersive reporting, placing audiences in the middle of unique international situations.

Currently, the University of Maryland, with a $31 million grant, employs virtual reality researchers to work on projects in health, public safety, and education.

Teachers will soon have a host of tools to incorporate into their teaching plans, while several companies are working on software to use at home with children. One from Samsung, for example, lets parents tell a story and describe a personal experience to their child in the kind of augmented reality that makes the child feel like they’re actually there.

All this seems positive… utopian, even. But there are downsides, and researchers, ethicists, scientists are just beginning to examine them. We can only be sure of one thing. The development and use of this new technology will far exceed our ability to cope with it.

It’s brand new. It’s a real shift in social experiences and potentially it will have a big long-term cultural impact.

If the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are right, it won’t be long before virtual reality enters our homes, our offices, our schools, and… yes, it’s already in many of our libraries. From California to New York, our largest libraries have incorporated VR technologies into programming and have begun offering patrons the opportunity to learn how it works. It’s not something we’ll be doing anytime soon, but it could well be in the mix for future plans.

Something on the to-do list as we establish the footprint of our new Powell Library.

#libraries #future

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