Skip to content

Building a virtual reality lab

February 26, 2018
Penn State's Immersive Experiences (IMEX) Lab

Penn State’s IMEX Lab (Image courtesy Jessica Showalter)

I was floored when I experienced Virtual Reality for the first time at Penn State’s new IMEX (Immersive Experiences) Lab. And I almost ended up on the floor—thankfully, IMEX Media Consultant Dan Getz was there acting as a spotter so I did not dive into the desk in front of me. The lab, which was created and funded by Teaching and Learning with Technology (a Unit of Enterprise IT), offers some useful lessons for libraries considering making space for a VR lab.

More and more researchers are using VR in fields including health care, engineering, travel, training, design, gaming, and storytelling, and libraries are seeking to keep up with the trend. According to the American Library Association’s new initiative, the Center for the Future of Libraries, “Libraries have long served as points for the public’s first exposure to new technologies, and they could again play that role with virtual reality . . . There is a significant push to bring virtual reality to education with many innovators focusing on two of the key services of libraries—collections and spaces.”

A range of equipment

Libraries planning to incorporate VR may be interested in the inventory of a space like the IMEX Lab. The lab offers equipment ranging from inexpensive Google Cardboard headsets, to mid-range 360-degree cameras that capture views in every direction simultaneously, to high-end Oculus Rift VR headsets and high-powered computers with video cards fast enough to run the VR equipment. It also has a soundbooth, a 2-monitor curved display allowing for multiple viewers of the same video, and six iMacs loaded with Adobe Premiere for 360-degree video editing.

A dedicated space

While lending equipment at a circulation desk is one possibility for libraries considering VR, having a dedicated space is important. First, the space offers access to specialized equipment and software. On top of that, it means expert help is always available (Getz’s office is integrated into the lab). It also gives users the ability to move around in VR environments safely.

“Once you are immersed in VR, you forget your physical surroundings,” Getz said. “We came up with several design strategies to keep viewers safe and comfortable while they are in VR. Our pinwheel design [pictured above] for our viewing pods features chairs with very heavy bases so they don’t tip over if viewers lean, and the chairs are also dual-pivot so that viewers can spin to explore their 360-degree videos. The tall walls of the pinwheel give viewers a sense of privacy so they don’t feel self-conscious.” Plus, as mentioned earlier, Getz can serve as a guide and spotter when someone is using one of the taped-off areas designated for the two Oculus Rift stations in the lab.

A service model

Development of the IMEX lab is ongoing. Getz explained, “The lab is less than a year old, and we are still trying to scale the service model.” Currently, the service model includes working with faculty to design assignments and then supporting them with workshops that introduce 360-degree video, teach the basics of using the cameras, and teach how to edit the videos in Adobe Premiere.

Getz also described how the IMEX lab works in concert with other units, including the Media Commons and the Maker Commons. For example, Getz explained, “Using Blocks by Google, a student can design a 3D model in VR, download the design, and send it over to our 3D printers in the Maker Commons to have it printed.”

Getz added that he and his colleagues are working to develop an app that would sync videos being watched by multiple viewers. “If an instructor is teaching with a 360-degree video, it could create confusion because students wearing headsets can look in any direction they wish and have individualized paths. With this app, the instructor could pause the video with a control device and project a specific moment and direction on a screen so that multiple viewers could discuss the same thing.”

The opportunities created by VR are exciting, but the new technology could present some barriers to entry. With this in mind, the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries emphasizes the importance of VR being accessible and affordable for all. According to the Center, “Even as VR helps provide more equitable access to content, it could also become the next realm of exclusive content . . . [which] could provide challenges to libraries’ mission toward equitable access as well as concerns for cataloguing and organizing these exclusives.”

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: