Virtual Reality

Virtual reality – the computer-generated simulation of images or whole environments that can be experienced using special electronic equipment – is progressing in several ways, including traditional virtual reality that creates environments, allowing people to be “present” in an alternative environment; augmented reality that starts with the real world and overlays virtual objects and information; and spherical or 360-degree video that captures an entire scene in which the viewer can look up, down, and around. [1]

How It’s Developing

In March of 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced the acquisition of Oculus, a startup that had launched a crowdfunding campaign for their Rift headset resulting in over $2.5 million raised, noting in a Facebook post “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home.” [2]

While Facebook’s announcement made big news, they are far from the only player in the space, as Google (Cardboard, Daydream), Samsung (Gear VR), HTC (Vive), Sony (Playstation VR), and others have introduced platforms and hardware for virtual reality. The potential for economic growth in hardware, software, and content is impressive; by 2025, the market for virtual reality content could be $5.4 billion, and virtual reality hardware could be worth $62 billion. [3]

Virtual reality technologies have been developed over several decades, including advances and contributions by researchers working in academia, aerospace, and the military, all trying to create alternative realities and experiences through digital technology. What has set recent developments apart are advances in computing power, more accurate motion sensors, and displays that have better resolution, all of which reduce processing delays and help eliminate the resulting nausea that could be a side effect of previous set-ups. [4]

Google’s Cardboard platform has made significant efforts to make virtual reality a part of information acquisition and education. In October 2015, the New York Times launched a project with Google to send Google Cardboard viewers to Sunday print edition subscribers as part of a promotion for its first VR story, “The Displaced,” in the New York Times Magazine. [5] In May of 2016, the New York Times expanded the project, sending Google Cardboard viewers to 300,000 digital-only subscribers timed with the release of "Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart." [6] In addition to its projects with the New York Times, Google’s Expeditions program works with schools to provide Cardboard viewers to classrooms that can integrate virtual reality tours into existing curricula. [7] As of February 2017, Google reported having shipped over ten million Cardboard headsets. [8]

Beyond consumption, virtual reality content creation is also becoming more accessible, especially through more widely available 360-degree video recording equipment. After launching 360-degree photo and then 360-degree live video features that allowed users to look up, down, and around in photos and videos, Facebook has also made it possible for users to livestream their own 360-degree recorded content. [9] Consumer-directed 360-degree cameras are also becoming more available, which allows more people to create monoscopic 360-degree video (smartphones, laptops, and PCs) and stereoscopic 360-degree video (for virtual reality headsets). [10] As users become more familiar with the experience of immersive video, even if only through 360-degree video, they will likely seek even more immersive content like virtual reality.

As VR continues to advance, it will become a more independent and fully-contained technology. Intel announced its Project Alloy in 2016 and Google announced the expansion of its Daydream VR program in 2017, both working to promote standalone headsets that have everything built-in – no cables, no phone, and no attached computer. [11]

As with other new technologies, VR could be an engine for economic development and policy concern. In the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality Technologies will work to educate members of Congress and encourage VR's development through policy. [12]

Part of the promise of virtual reality is it’s use for social interaction – giving people an emotionally fulfilling sense of being together even when they are physically far apart; however, the earliest attempts at such social interaction are still lacking. [13] In 2017, Facebook launched Facebook Spaces for the Oculus Rift system, which allows up to four people to gather around a virtual table and participate in a limited number of activities. Developers have started with a simple social experience but hope to better understand how people will interact and build experiences based on those insights. [14] Real-world socialization while playing VR could also be an opportunity for development as several arcades have started to appear, allowing interested users to experience VR together. [15]

Why It Matters

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. In California, Oculus launched an initiative to place one hundred Oculus Rift headsets and VR-ready PC systems in ninety libraries throughout the state, noting "If we want everyone to have a shot at participating in those new VR-based roles and economies, it’s important that we help people see what’s coming." [16]

Immersive storytelling or VR storytelling will become a more frequent tool for conveying information, especially as major media outlets invest in in-house virtual reality production. [17] Immersive storytelling was pioneered by journalist and researcher Nonny de la Peña, who created immersive VR experiences of bomb explosions in Syria and hunger in Los Angeles, placing audiences in the middle of unique, international experiences. [18] In addition to news reporting, live news, entertainment, and sporting events may receive the virtual reality treatment. [19]

Virtual Reality will continue to be a tool for creative storytelling as well. Alejandro Iñárritu's six-and-a-half-minute short film, "CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible)" was the first VR project to be chosen for the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival and director Ridley Scott announced RSA VR, an imprint of his production company that will be dedicated to mixed media; unlike traditional films, these VR narrative films will initially be developed for solo experience. [20]

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. Brendan Iribe, one of the founders of Oculus, notes the potential for scanned digital collections where users "could see those objects and you could look around and you could see it so well and so clearly, and it would track so perfectly that your brain would believe it was really right in front of you" and then a next technological development where "you have shared space, and not only do you believe that this object is right there in front of me, but I look around and I see other people just like we see each other now, and I really, truly believe that you’re right in front of me." [21] Iribe is investing in his vision, making a $31 million donation to the University of Maryland to continue the efforts of virtual reality researchers working on projects in health care, public safety and education. [22]

Virtual reality has found its way into several sectors. In health care, it is being used to treat those who have experienced trauma as well as medical conditions like phobias or phantom limb syndrome and to train health care providers. [23] In architecture and construction, virtual reality can be used as a means of design or to construct virtual walkthroughs or tests of planned buildings. [24] In retail, Walmart has begun using Virtual Reality to help train employees by designing store-specific scenarios. [25] In travel and tourism, virtual reality can help sell hotel rooms and attractions before travelers’ actual arrival. [26]

Children will also become more accustomed to virtual reality. In 2015, Mattel relaunched its View-Master reimagined as a Google Cardboard VR headset with disks that activate child-appropriate VR experiences. [27] Samsung prototyped a Bedtime VR Stories app, having parents use a Samsung Gear VR headset and children a Google Cardboard headset to experience a shared virtual world where the parent can narrate a story and shared experience. [28]

Virtual reality could become an important tool for users to connect with and experience cultural events, institutions, and collections in virtual reality or 360-degree video. [29]

Even as VR helps provide more equitable access to content, it could also become the next realm of exclusive content – like the bonus virtual reality content available exclusively with the vinyl edition of Childish Gambino’s album, Awaken, My Love. [30] Such exclusives could provide challenges to libraries’ mission toward equitable access as well as concerns for cataloging and organizing these exclusives.

Examples from Libraries

San Jose Public Library - Virtual Reality

Georgetown University Library - Gelardin New Media Center

Western Michigan Unviersity Libraries - Virtual Reality Lab

Is you library innovating with virtual reality? Please let us know.

Notes and Resources

[1] Viewing the future? Virtual reality in storytelling, Patrick Doyle, Mitch Gelman, and Sam Gill, (Miami: Knight Foundation, 2016), available from

[2] “The inside story of Oculus Rift and how virtual reality became reality,” Peter Rubin, Wired, May 20, 2014, available from

[3] "A virtual reality revolution, coming to a headset near you," Lorne Manly, New York Times, November 25, 2015, available from

[4] "How virtual reality is going to change our lives," Madhumita Murgia, Telegraph, December 12, 2015, available from

[5] "The New York Times has launched a virtual reality project with Google," Kristen Hare, Poynter, October 2, 2015, available from

[6] "The New York Times will send Google Cardboard to 300,000 subscribers," Kristen Hare, Poynter, April 28, 2016, available from

[7] "Google virtual-reality system aims to enliven education," Natasha Singer, New York Times, September 28, 2015, available from

[8] "Google has shipped over 10 million Cardboard VR headsets," Adi Robertson, The Verge, February 28, 2017, available from

[9] "Facebook to launch 360-degree live videos," Richard Nieva, CNET, December 12, 2016, available from


"Facebook widens 360-degree live-streaming to all," Joan E. Solsman, CNET, March 29, 2017, available from

[10] "Why you’re going to want a 360 camera," Emily Price, Fast Company, July 10, 2016, available from


"Facebook unveils two new VR cameras with ‘six degrees of freedom,’" Cade Metz, Wired, April 19, 2017, available from

[11] "Intel shows off all-in-one Project Alloy virtual reality headset," Lucas Matney, TechCrunch, August 16, 2016, available from


"Google announces untethered, fully tracked, standalone VR headsets," Kyle Orland, Ars Technica, May 17, 2017, available from

[12] "New caucus will bridge VR knowledge gap among lawmakers," Government Technology, May 4, 2017, available from

[13] "Virtual reality’s missing element: Other people," Rachel Metx, MIT Technology Review, June 14, 2017, available from

[14] "Facebook's first social VR app is cool — but there's a problem," Karissa Bell, Mashable, April 18, 2017, available from

[15] "Video game arcades are back – this time, with virtual reality for the masses," Alan Boyle, GeekWire, April 12, 2017, available from

[16] "Oculus installing free VR systems in nearly 100 California libraries," Adario Strange, Mashable, June 7, 2017, available from

[17] Please see any of the below as examples:

"ABC News launches virtual reality coverage in Syria," Julia Greenberg, Wired, September 16, 2016, available from

"USA Today announces VR news show ‘VRtually There,’" Billy Steele, Engadget, March 10, 2016, available from

"The BBC takes its first steps into 'true VR,'" Jamie Rigg, Engadget, June 9, 2016, available from

"Guardian creates in-house virtual reality team," Freddy Mayhew, PressGazette, October 4, 2016, available from

"The New York Times is launching a daily 360-degree video series," Joseph Lichterman, Nieman Lab, November 1, 2016, available from

"CNN launches global VR journalism unit and new 360-degree mobile content," James Vincent, The Verge, March 8, 2017, available from

[18] "How virtual reality is going to change our lives," Madhumita Murgia, Telegraph, December 12, 2015, available from


"VR is now helping teach midwives to deliver babies," Zoey Chong, CNET, May 25, 2017, available from

[19] Please see any of the below as examples:

"The Huffington Post will broadcast 360-degree video from Republican and Democratic National Conventions," Rich McCormick, The Verge, July 15, 2016, available from

"NBC will stream the debates and other election coverage in VR, starting tonight," Sarah Perez, TechCrunch, September 21, 2016, available from

"The NBA will broadcast live games in VR all season long," Daniel Terdiman, Fast Company, October 20, 2016, available from

"The NFL is launching a virtual reality series on YouTube & Daydream," Sarah Perez, TechCrunch, November 4, 2016, available from

"Live NBA is coming to Google's Daydream VR platform," Steve Dent, Engadget, January 4, 2017, available from

[20] "'The Revenant' director's VR short is a first for Cannes," Jennifer Bisset, CNET, April 17, 2017, available from

[21] "Will the next classroom disruption be in 3-D? Facebook’s virtual-reality company thinks so," Jeffrey R. Young, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 12, 2014, available from

[22] "Virtual-reality lab explores new kinds of immersive learning," Ellen Wexler, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 8, 2015, available from

[23] "How virtual reality is going to change our lives," Madhumita Murgia, Telegraph, December 12, 2015, available from

[24] "How virtual reality is going to change our lives," Madhumita Murgia, Telegraph, December 12, 2015, available from

[25] "Walmart is training employees with a Black Friday VR simulator," Adi Robertson, The Verge, June 1, 2017, available from

[26] "Expedia wants you to virtually step into your hotel room before you book," Yvette Tan, Mashable, April 10, 2017, available from

[27] "The VR View-Master is Google Cardboard for kids," Adi Robertson, The Verge, October 9, 2015, available from

[28] “Samsung’s Bedtime VR Stories is an ambitious app for remote parenting," James Vincent, The Verge, April 29, 2016, available from

[29] Please see any of the below as examples:

"The Lion King Musical in VR is an incredible experience," Tim Moynihan, Wired, November 18, 2015, available from

"Step inside Abbey Road Studios in virtual reality," Blathnaid Healy, Mashable, April 1, 2016, available from

"NextVR teams up with Live Nation to broadcast concerts in virtual reality," James Vincent, The Verge, May 4, 2016, available from

"You can now ride on a pride float without leaving your couch," Mary Emily O'Hara, Daily Dot, June 24, 2016, available from

"Tour Yosemite in virtual reality with Barack Obama," Adi Robertson, The Verge, August 25, 2016, available from

"You can now fly around Google Earth in virtual reality," Adi Robertson, The Verge, November 16, 2016, available from

"Google launches VR tour of New York's festive store windows," Steve Dent, Engadget, December 7, 2016, available from

“Virtual reality could be the next frontier in college campus tours," Ido Lechner, PSFK (blog), PSFK, May 5, 2017, available from

"Google launches the Grand Tour of Italy as part of arts and culture platform," Tony Connelly, The Drum, May 29, 2017, available from

[30] "Childish Gambino’s 'Awaken, My Love' virtual reality vinyl detailed," Jazz Monroe, Pitchfork, May 10, 2017, available from