Sarah is a Liaison Librarian at QUT with the Faculty of Health and is currently leading a project investigating how virtual reality can be incorporated into the library. ALIA New Grads sat down to chat with Sarah about the project.
The integration of virtual reality (VR) into our everyday lives has long been imagined in sci-fi and pop culture but with advances in technology this is becoming, well, a reality. The release of low cost VR equipment such as Google’s cardboard headset and with VR apps available on Android and iPhone the technology is already at our fingertips. It’s also steadily making its way into libraries. In California Facebook’s Oculus partnered with California State Libraries to make 100 sets of Rift headsets, touch controllers and computers available in 90 libraries. While there hasn’t been the same support from technology companies in Australia a couple of academic libraries are investigating ways to make VR accessible to their users. The University of Adelaide Library undertook a two phase project to determine how they might best use and include VR technology in their collection and at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Library Sarah Howard is leading a project in partnership with ProQuest that has similar aims.
As a liaison librarian for the Faculty of Health virtual reality doesn’t specifically fall within Sarah’s position description which includes a mix of “research, teaching and learning and also information resources”. To make her passion for VR part of her day job Sarah undertook an independent research project to explore how the library could source and provide VR content and equipment to users as part of QUT Library’s Off the Grid program. During this program Sarah was able to dedicate 30 hours of her work time to investigating the idea. Sarah’s findings turned the head of the then director of the library, Sue Hutley, who set up a partnership withProQuest to develop the project further. Through this partnership Sarah and the team are aiming to investigate the kinds of virtual reality content library users want and the platforms that would be needed to house and distribute the content. As Sarah explained, “With ProQuest we’re trying to find out whatthe need is, not just for students or library staff but academics and then giving that information back to ProQuest to try and get them to help us source some actual virtual reality tools”. To do this Sarah is asking faculties, “if you had VR content how would you use it or what would you want from it?” She says the Creative Industries, Science and Engineering and Health Faculties have already created VR content, but further support is needed to provide them with a place to store content and overcome compatibility and bandwidth issues.
The library has also purchased VR equipment including a Playstation headset, Oculus rift headset and an Alienware laptop. Some of this equipment was put to the test at QUT’s Robotronica event, an all ages one-day event during National Science Week that showcased QUT’s work in the robotics field. Sarah set up a computer on wheels and a Playstation VR headset with the game The Luge from PlayStation’s VR Worlds series. The computer screen meant that people could watch the action while others were playing. Over 100 people came and tried the technology, “Every single person that came through loved it and there were some people who I would have presumed would have [experienced] virtual reality before, but every person that came child, adult, I’d say have you done this before and most of them said no”. Despite the apparent simplicity of a short game like this there are many challenges in setting up VR. There are a surprising number of occupational health and safety considerations. During Robotronica the VR headsets had to be wiped down after each use and the cables had to be arranged to make sure they weren’t a trip hazard. Sarah also the needed to get parental permission before younger children could participate as Sony recommends that only children over the age of 12 should use the headsets. For Sarah one of the biggest challenges is finding a platform that offers institutions access to their content, as most platforms are built to cater to individuals. While ProQuest is currently creating both educational VR resources and a platform to make it accessible, Sarah is investigating ways to set up institutional access to platforms such as Steam, which Sarah describes as: “the game platform equivalent of Netflix”.
Sarah says that faculty members have been surprised that the library can help them with VR but this shouldn’t be so, “… we’re a library, we’re a resource, not just ebooks and databases but also images, virtual reality resources”. By having conversations and creating partnerships Sarah hopes to establish a VR community of practice with the library as a central hub, “where people can come together and share what they’ve got and ask what they need”. To cement their position as VR advisors the library itself has also become a content creator, producing a 360 video tour of the Kelvin Grove campus Library which you can view on YouTube. The demand for virtual reality content and equipment is only going to increase, “… the Gartner reports and a lot of other reports are saying yes it is definitely, in say the next five years… going to be more mainstream”. To keep up with this ever-changing environment Sarah encourages young librarians to be agile and future-focused, “see what the need is before it becomes a need, just so you can predict what you need to know”. Set up alerts, use social media and RSS feeds, Google alerts, Podcasts and don’t be afraid to share information with others and be part of the conversation.
You can find Sarah on Twitter: @nairarbiltuq