Virtual Reality and the Academic Library: Getting Started

From equipment to programming, we have you covered

Two people wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, maybe in an academic library

Many libraries have been slow to adopt virtual reality (VR). This has been for a multitude of reasons, cost and the fear of “fad technology” being just two of them. VR has long been looked at with mixed understanding and some degree of technical wariness. However, this has been slowly changing as more and more libraries and institutions are embracing VR. Many universities are implementing courses to teach students how to create VR programs. So why are so many libraries still cautious of VR, and what are some of the ways VR can be used in Programming.

A quick tour of VR equipment

Despite many misconceptions, VR is not a newer technology. Indeed, the term “virtual reality” was coined in the 1980s. Sega and Nintendo both created VR prototypes in the 1990s, but sadly these prototypes failed.

VR systems have continued to develop as technology has. Recently, there have been three different kinds of VR headsets: VR that requires a phone, systems that require a computer, and standalone systems. However, VR seemed to really become available to different libraries when Google announced their Google VR, or Google Cardboard. These VR viewers, which relied on smartphones, were an inexpensive way for people to experience VR. For many libraries, this was a golden opportunity to bring VR to their patrons. The drawback to relying on smartphones is not only that they have limited processing power, but they are also constantly updated. This meant that the phones could not support the triple-A programming that other headsets could. Also, the programs had to be constantly supported. Google has since stopped selling its Google Cardboard platforms. Some programs are still available in phone stores, but many of them will stop being compatible with phones after certain updates. Sadly, this contributed to more “wariness” toward VR.

Though Google has moved away from VR, other companies are still supporting and developing their systems.

Two of the more popular VR systems are the Meta Quest and the HTC Vive. The Vive requires a computer and while the Quest can be a standalone system, it can also connect to a computer through an HDMI cable. These systems have more programming options than phone-only systems thanks to the Meta Store and Steam than phone systems. While I have mentioned these two, other systems can use VR programming from the Steam store, but it is important to check the program page to see which headsets are supported.


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How to use VR in library programming

For library programming, there is almost an endless well of possibilities for VR ranging from educational to just entertainment. During the 2023 fall semester, Mississippi State University (MSU) held a Beat Saber VR tournament right before finals. Even students who had never used VR showed up to play, and some of them stayed for hours just to have fun. Other students said they couldn’t wait to practice for the next one. While MSU is not the first university to hold such a competition, other universities who have done such have also said their students enjoyed them and showed up to play. Another programming idea is to get VR horror games such as Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) Help Wanted for patrons and students to play during Halloween. FNAF is a popular series that many students grew up with. Both of these programs are available on Steam and the Meta Store.

While these are two programs that focus purely on entertainment, other programs are for more serious topics. One such program was recently released on the Meta Store and is MLK; Now is the Time. This program focuses on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and explores the different meanings and interpretations of it. Such a program could help students and patrons understand and experience the Civil Rights Movement in ways that they could not before. Another such program available on the Quest is Anne Frank House VR. This program highlights the environment and situations under which Anne wrote her diary. This program allows users to experience what Anne did for two years as she hid during the Second World War.

VR offers a great deal of opportunities for libraries. Its programming offers users a unique chance to have fun and have new experiences. While I have focused on history, there are different VR programs for exercise, vocabulary, art, and many other subjects. The best way to experience them all is to put on a headset and play.


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