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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2021

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Vol. 41 No. 2 — March 2021
FEATURE

Hardware Is the Easy Part: The Gray Areas of Integrating VR in Libraries
by Gillian (Jill) D. Ellern and Laura Cruz


[P]urchasing and installing the VR hardware is the easy part of establishing VR services in your library.
For those libraries that have ventured into putting VR labs or stations into their public areas, many have found that buying and installing the hardware is the easy part of integrating the technology. There are many gray areas involved with providing this service to patrons. As with many emergent technologies, there are a number of open issues, not the least of which is integrating the technology within the library’s physical space. You will have new service and learning partners to deal with. Persistent questions about liability, licensing, control, and support may require libraries to make uncomfortable decisions, wrestle with unknown factors, and expand their capacity for risk-taking. Despite these challenges, VR is an exciting new technology that has the potential to open up new opportunities and partnerships for libraries, which is why librarians may find it worthwhile to persist through the gray areas. 

OVERVIEW 

VR is an emerging technology whose definition is constantly being reinvented. In the research literature, VR refers to those technologies in which computers simulate 3D images and/or environments that the user can interact with. XR, short for cross-reality, has recently been posited as an umbrella term to encompass all forms of VR, including AR and 360-degree videos. 

In libraries, VR equipment most commonly takes the form of headsets, controllers, and computers. While some of the newer headsets are self-contained (i.e., they do not require wired connections), some additionally need some sort of sensors that track the headset and controllers in space. The newer headsets also have multiple cameras built into them that are used as sensors to track the controllers. Some sensors (also called base stations) must be plugged into a power source, while others need to be wired to the computer. Mounting or setting up these sensors helps define the floor space needed by the users of the headsets and controllers. However, purchasing and installing the VR hardware is the easy part of establishing VR services in your library.

Considering the space requirements for VR equipment is just the start of bringing the technology into your library.

THE GRAY AREAS 

Business Models

Currently, the primary audience for VR vendors is the at-home individual gamer. Vendors expect the PC owner to have a ready credit card and full control of the PC onto which the software is loaded. This stands in stark contrast to how libraries operate. Putting a headset in a library situation means that multiple individuals can use the equipment freely and without charge. It also means that the PC is owned and operated by an organization rather than an individual. Vendors are unaccustomed to administrative processes such as the use of purchase orders, review, and approval of licensing agreements by organizational lawyers, as well as management of a PC by another party. While some libraries have had similar conflicts when dealing with software on library-owned tablets, the gray areas are exponentially larger in scope and complexity with VR.

Purchasing 

Purchasing VR apps is complicated. To start with, each VR device vendor has its own app store (e.g., Oculus Rift Store, HTC’S VIVEPORT, Google’s Daydream). There are also several video game distribution services that are used with the devices. The largest of these is Steam, which carries VR apps in addition to other gaming titles. All of these distribution services allow the user to browse the offerings by gaming types and to download the apps that work with the device. Many of these apps are free or free to play. Some headsets come bundled with apps that you might otherwise have to purchase. The multi-vendor environment complicates how upgrades are managed and makes locking down the device—a common strategy used by libraries to protect software—nearly impossible. 

The decision of whether or not to include games in the library’s VR portfolio is not straightforward. There are some apps that sound educational but are really games (e.g., Surgery Simulator), and there are some apps that sound like games but have strong educational components (e.g., Google Earth). A collection development policy can be helpful, but it is important to separate it from a use policy. It can be difficult to discern the distinct applications of different types of VR, including 360-degree videos, VR experiences, and VR apps or games. Librarians prefer to use evaluative tools to guide purchasing, but VR is currently evaluated primarily by vendors whose idea of quality is dominated by purchases from individual users. Other characteristics that make identifying and purchasing quality VR apps difficult include the lack of subject identification, the lack of information needed to ensure ADA compliance, and the current value of consumer popularity over authenticity. Common standards for library purchasing remain a work in progress. 

Accounts 

Once the VR apps have been purchased, additional gray areas arise with account management. Most vendors require that users create accounts at their vendor store in order to download or purchase apps. Looking at the fine print in these account agreements, librarians will notice language and terms that might give them pause. Terms that are especially troubling include things such as “strictly personal,” “You may not reveal, share or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account,” “You may only purchase Services for your personal use,” or “You may not purchase Services for commercial use or resale.” You will have to make unique accounts (non-person) for each station in the library. Even vendors that sell their product directly to the library might need to have accounts created on distribution services such as Steam in order to disseminate their software or load drivers that are needed to operate the software.

Facebook (which owns Oculus) announced recently that users of its various VR devices will soon be required to have a Facebook login in order to operate them. Questions have been raised about the ramifications of this, with respect to data collection, targeted advertising, privacy, and administration of shared devices in libraries. The alternative, Oculus for Business, is significantly more expensive and restrictive. There have also been concerns raised about Facebook’s policies on banning non-person accounts. Despite having one of the only headsets on the market that does not require a PC or smartphone to operate, this may take this vendor out of the marketplace for libraries and education in the future.

Legal Issues

The majority of VR equipment vendors have set age limits of 13 or older on their equipment. While their explanations include limiting the technology because of the size of the headset and because certain age ranges represent critical periods of visual development for children, there seems to be a general lack of research to support these limits. That said, should your library’s or administrative organization lawyers begin looking at vendor’s health and safety warnings for VR devices, some waiver, liability, or assumption of risk might be needed before a user can operate the equipment. In addition, your lawyers might require users to agree not to infringe on the rights of the vendor, agree to sole liability, or indemnify the library’s employees before they can use the equipment. Users might need to be warned that dizziness, vertigo, seizures, blackouts, or panic attacks might happen while using the equipment. Some vendors even recommend limiting time in VR, with breaks every 30 minutes. How your library interprets and enforces these health protections, liabilities, and/or infringement clauses seems to depend on the level of risk it is willing to take in order to provide VR service.

Space and Visibility

Depending on the type of headset, an operating VR station might need a minimum of 6.5'x5' of floor space. Some of the sensors might need to be mounted on the walls or on sturdy tripods with access to power and the CPU. If your library chooses to take this service on the road or into a classroom space outside the library, the PC and connected VR 
systems can be quite bulky. Toting around high-end computers, cables, tripods, and such can be a cumbersome undertaking; your IT staffers might not appreciate the wear and tear on the computer systems. The space may also need to be closed off. While in VR, users wearing the headsets can become loud and disruptive without realizing it. 

Depending on the amount of visibility a library wishes to give the VR service, it might be challenging to find appropriate space. Some libraries have converted space in the front entry area for marketing and audience participation, while others have converted various rooms into VR labs. There is a need to provide scheduling of the stations, procedures for checking out controllers, and appropriate staffing. Few librarians allow unrestricted patron access to VR equipment, partly because of concerns about security, but mainly because the equipment requires training for most users to engage with it appropriately. 

Learning VR

Library support does not end with placing the VR device in patrons’ hands. Many people take some time to acclimate to the VR environment, particularly regarding the ability to move around and see in 3D. It is necessary to demonstrate appropriate actions without the patron being able to see you or you being able to touch them, leaving only verbal cues. This also necessitates accommodations for both visually and hearing-impaired clients. Various libraries have developed a number of different acclimation protocols, but, to date, there is not a widely shared set of best practices. 

Perhaps the largest gray area stems from integrating VR into the learning mission of the library. For teachers who wish to use VR as part of their instruction, there are hardware limitations, such as not having a sufficient number of headsets for each student. But librarians have found several workarounds for this particular issue, including projecting images from the individual VR headset onto shared screens. That is assuming there are appropriate VR titles available to fit the objectives of the course and that the title is accessible to the library—two obstacles that have proven more difficult to overcome. The health-related fields are perhaps the most advanced in their endeavors to use VR spaces to support learning, but even they have struggled to optimize virtual environments to enhance higher-order thinking. 

NOW AND IN THE FUTURE 

With the onset of COVID-19 and remote learning implemented in many schools, hardware-dependent physical VR labs have remained largely idle. While this could be interpreted as a sign to disengage with VR services, the disruption has actually proven to be a turning point in recognizing the significance of VR as part of the future of education. After all, VR is providing opportunities for experiments with laboratories, study abroad without travel, and classrooms without walls. Cutting-edge research has even suggested that VR can be used to foster a sense of belonging, connection, and empathy for others. In other words, libraries may find it worthwhile to navigate the current gray areas in order to play a vital role in the brave new post-pandemic world. 

For further information about setting up and operating a VR lab, including downloadable and shareable forms, consult the VR Resource Kit for Librarians at faculty.wcu.edu/ellern/vrresourcekit.

Laura CruzGillian (Jill) D. EllernGillian (Jill) D. Ellern [left] (ellern@email.wcu.edu ) has been the coordinator for Hunter Library’s VR lab since its creation 2 years ago and the systems librarian at Western Carolina University for the past 30 years. Ellern lives on a farm in rural western North Carolina with various equines, chickens, and corgis.
Laura Cruz 
[right] is an associate research professor with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State. She frequently partners with faculty members on research that relates to teaching, learning, and innovation.