Today, Oculus Rift, the company that pioneered Virtual Reality (VR), launched a pilot program that provides 100 Virtual Reality kits to libraries in California. These kits include Oculus headsets, hand controls, and computers needed to run the software. The program includes several software titles as well, designed to aid in education.
The program is a pilot that started as a smaller pilot by John MacLeod of VAR Libraries, who started a small program on his own before ever interacting with Oculus. Once Oculus saw the interest in the program, they decided to partner with VAR Libraries, the California State Libraries, and Califa to expand the program into 100 California libraries.
Of course, even 100 libraries is a relatively small pilot program, as there are more than 1,100 libraries in the state, so coverage is less than 10 percent of California, but the idea is to allow this to be a testing ground to see how the program will work long term.
“We’re early in our understanding of how VR works with education,” Cindy Ball, program manager for Oculus Education said on the phone Monday June 5. “The driver for VR has been so far, and will continue to be gaming. We want to focus on understanding how VR can also have a unique and positive impact on learning.”
This means that in addition to libraries, Oculus will soon be partnering with 30 research groups and nonprofits to test how VR really works. Essentially the researchers will take an existing science curriculum and that perhaps uses simulations and gaming, and “transform those programs using VR,” said Ball. “We would then compare the student outcomes in the programs with and without VR. These results will show us whether VR is a good at enhancing that area of learning or it wasn’t. We are approaching this with an open mind, understanding VR may not be the solution in every area.”
Research groups are focusing on several areas from STEM education to the arts and storytelling. “Our definition of learning is broad. Using VR for drug intervention and situational training is something we are very interested in,” she said
There is also the operational side of things to figure out, Ball said. “It is best that people not use these units alone, so staffing will be an issue. Hygiene and general safety are big concerns.” The hope is that the libraries experience with the first 100 devices will generate sufficient interest for the state to drive further expansion.
Califa, the California Library Association, is very active nationally. It is hoped that as they feel the positive effects for their patrons, they will evangelize the importance of VR in libraries in other states.
Washington State has already showed interest, and Oculus has already had discussions with Cindy Aden, the state librarian, about putting pilot programs into four to five libraries throughout the state hopefully by the end of 2017. Expansion in Washington would be demand-driven and involve well-educated decision making based on the success of the California program along with the pilot program in Washington.
“Oculus and Facebook both care about encouraging and attracting passionate technology talent,” Ball said. “Hopefully, this initiative inspires more people to consider taking part in our industry, helps them understand the many different skills and opportunities involved in creating VR experiences, and lets them envision being a part of that ecosystem.”
This project has three primary goals, which will help inform future Oculus Education projects. “The primary goal of the library project is to support equitable access to technology. Regardless of your gender, race, religion, or socioeconomic status, you are welcomed at the library and have free access to all the resources it provides,” Ball said. The program aims to get as many people as possible to give VR a try.
Many industries are starting to transform through AR/VR technologies, and as that increases, career opportunities will evolve. If everyone is going to have a shot at participating in those new VR-based roles and economies, it’s important that as many people as possible are exposed to VR and thereby inspired to participate in the industry.
Second the hope is that this program will help Oculus to understand the benefits and challenges of deploying a program like this at scale. For states and other organizations to scale large programs in the future, it’s important they understand what works well and what doesn’t.
And third, Oculus plans to encourage the layering of more educational content and experiences to add to the educational benefits. Collaborations with Facebook’s TechStart and inspirED programs, experiences developed through our educational research investments, as well as the educational content available through the Oculus Store will be just the start.
Libraries have a great opportunity to share technology with the communities they serve, and VR is just a small part of that. Oculus aims to help with that effort. California and now Washington will be the testing ground for this program, but it certainly won’t stop there as interest builds, and VR becomes an integral part of education and other areas of our lives.
“If I had magical powers, I would accelerate and expand the educational programming across libraries, Ball said. “The end-goal is for more people to be inspired, educated and empowered. We’ll get there—I just want to get there faster!”