The Virtual Worlds at Warwick pilot used virtual reality (VR) to support the library’s mission to be its community’s “open door to learning” and to build empathy and to democratize this new technology. They planned to use VR to take patrons through empathy-building experiences while also providing opportunities for their patrons of all ages to simply try out the VR experience, many of them for the first time.
The Warwick Public Library first decided they wanted to do a project with virtual reality after reading several scientific experiments showing that being fully immersed in another culture or lifestyle can increase the amount of empathy a user had for someone in different circumstances. The team behind Virtual Worlds at Warwick project wanted to ensure that VR would be used in a purposeful way, and decided to embed the technology into existing programs, including their board game club, teen volunteer opportunities, and book clubs. Different library departments—teen services, reference, adult services—were consulted and several library staff were trained to ensure this technology was embedded throughout library programming to expose all populations to the technology during the pilot, which ran from March to June 2018.
To provide an immersive VR experience, the Warwick Public Library purchased 2 HTC Vive Virtual Reality Systems. To support the systems, they purchased one Alienware Aurora R7 Desktop with 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080, and 2TB Hard drive for in-house set-up and an ASUS Gaming Laptop to provide the option of a portable experience to be used for outreach and eventually, for lending to other libraries. They also purchased all of the bits and pieces needed for the VR room scale setup and a variety of games and experiences to load onto the systems from Viveport and STEAM. They reserved the remainder of their grant funding to pay consultants for help with everything from choosing equipment to providing public programs.
The VR experiences were primarily offered to the community through open virtual reality windows and by appointment. The library’s book clubs were reading the book The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and were encouraged to try an immersive refugee experience called Forced to Flee as a supplement to their reading. During these open times and appointments, users had the opportunity to explore the full catalog of experiences, including games, empathy-building, and exploratory experiences. The library also sought to involve teens as digital creators, hosting a Spring Break Creation Camp. Teens worked together to measure the library, convert feet to Minecraft blocks and create a to-scale 3D version of the library.
Warwick Public Library partnered with Rhode Island Virtual Reality (RIVR) to provide VR to its community and the expertise and enthusiasm RIVR provided proved integral to the successful completion of the project. The library used grants funds for consultation with RIVR to help them decide what equipment they wanted to purchase. Though initially planning to purchase an Oculus system, RIVR helped them decide upon a VIVE HTC system instead because they felt the system was more robust.
RIVR connected the library with a student from New England Institute of Technology (NEIT). This paid student consultant was in the first graduating class at NEIT that studied content development specifically for virtual reality hardware and helped to set up and run the first NEIT VR Lab. The student consultant attended various VR outreach events on behalf of the library and trained the library staff on how to use the system. He was very helpful in setting up the system, training library staff, increasing interest with users and helping to run the spring break camp for teens.
Finding partners who bring expertise made this project run considerably more smoothly than if the library had sought to complete this project on their own. This also presents a challenge moving forward; because they relied so heavily on experts to provide programming, finding in-house staff willing to tackle VR on their own may be a bit tricky in the future.
Warwick Public Library offered roughly sixty experiences and games in fully immersive
VR. Categories for experiences included storytelling, education, and games. Consideration of these different categories of experiences went into the selection of experiences, as they library wanted to offer a wide breadth of experiences from which anyone could find something that excited them. Depending on a person’s comfort level and interests, they could chose from among those experiences, which included: Forced to Flee (a live-action fully immersive video recorded at a Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh), International Space Station Tour VR, Fruit Ninja VR. For a full list of the VR experiences provided by Warwick, visit the virtual Studio Rhode Toolkit online at http://studiorhode.ri.gov.
The logistics of using the Virtual Reality went relatively smoothly. Patrons could reserve the VR headset for thirty-minute sessions using Setmore, which the library already uses to book tech help sessions. Their NEIT student helped patrons learn to the use the system during these times, but also spent considerable time at the outset of the project training the staff on setting up the equipment, ordering and downloading experiences and using the equipment, so that the library could continue offering experiences when he was no longer involved. There were a few practical lessons learned about using virtual reality equipment.
The library learned quickly that sanitation would be a concern and opted to purchase disposable adhesive masks that could be applied for each new person using the headsets. The library also developed a waiver with the town of Warwick legal department, especially as concerns arose over the appropriate age for use of this technology and the potential side effects. Though the VIVE HTC has no specific age limit—it merely suggests adult supervision—the library opted to set a minimum age limit of twelve, requiring a waiver signed by a parent or guardian for those under eighteen. Adults were also asked to sign the waiver making them aware of the potential side effects of using the VR.
There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from adults to having VR at the library. Many patrons truly felt immersed in the experiences, whether that was experiencing being at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh or experiencing homeless. Many patrons were speechless, extremely moved, or had a feeling of helplessness, similar to the characters and people in the experiences mentioned. Other experiences allowed a patron to travel back to the city where they grew up and another gave an older patron the feeling to being able to dive again.
The library sought to provide VR experiences relevant to all ages, and so used VR with older kids and teens as well. The flagship effort with teens was the Spring Break Creation Camp, led by the project’s NEIT student staffer, which turned teens into digital creators in addition to consumers. This program quickly reached its fifteen-person registration limit, with a three-person waitlist, and culminated in a virtual tour of the library for the parents of the students, created by the teens.
Efforts to embed virtual reality into existing programs were hit-or-miss. Tying in the book club selection to the VR refugee experience worked well and the teen creation camp was a hit. But the library also tried incorporating VR into their popular weekly board game club. Though interested in trying out the games offered through the headsets, the club quickly returned to their main interest —board games—and ultimately the library stopped setting up the VR for this program.
When Warwick Public Library started their project, the team had two goals in mind: provide a service that would build empathy and provide access to new technology, democratizing it for their community.
This project generally ran smoothly. After a snow storm delayed the arrival of the equipment, the library had to alter its plan for teen tech week to the April vacation creation camp, but otherwise their programming ran as scheduled. Partnering with RIVR and having their NEIT student intern on hand throughout the project helped provide them with the expertise they needed to avoid serious struggle.
Outside of outreach events and the teen creation camp, the library estimates that about seventy-five people used the VR equipment during open VR windows and through appointments. When given the opportunity to explore freely, many users chose deeply personal experiences. From the elderly woman who went diving for the first time in many years to the immigrant who visited the streets of her hometown, users reported having meaningful experiences when they tried this equipment.
Virtual Worlds at Warwick brought people to the library to try VR experiences and games, and some users in turn brought more people to the library. For example, one patron booked a VR session to view the refugee experience to go along with the book club selection, and stayed to try out Becoming Homeless: a Human Experience. As a volunteer who works with the homeless, she was so moved by the experience that she went back to her community group and convinced at least five additional volunteers to book VR appointments at the library to try the experience.
The library is confident that ongoing VR appointments and tie-ins to the book club will continue—there are already plans to use VR take a bus tour of Paris virtually after reading a book set in France—and that two or three programs focused on content development will be held. The biggest concern for continuing the project is to find someone on staff who is interested in and able to conduct VR programs. During the project window, because a paid intern provided most of the instruction to the public, so they will have to find the staff time to devote to
Warwick Public Library has also made a number of connections throughout the RI library community through their outreach efforts to librarians. They intend to start a VR lending program through which other libraries in the state can borrow their portable set up.
Guardian VR - free virtual reality journalism experiences from the Guardian
STEAM - digital distribution platform for video games, virtual reality experiences
VIVECraft- Minecraft for Virtual Reality
VIVEPORT - App store providing virtual reality content for VIVE HTC