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Have Headset, Will Travel

Oh, the places we’ll go and things we’ll see, all virtually!

Published onJul 30, 2023
Have Headset, Will Travel

Want to see what it’s like at the top of Mount Everest? Go scuba diving with sea turtles? Or maybe travel to Hobbiton Village in New Zealand?

You can do it all through virtual reality (VR).

VR isn’t something that is financially feasible for everyone yet, so how neat would it be for the library to offer it to its patrons? The virtual world can open the door for opportunities many people may not have previously had access to.

Yakima Valley Libraries (YVL) has recently dipped its toe into the world of VR. In November of 2020, we received a donation specifically for virtual reality with which we purchased an Oculus headset. Over the last two years we received two more donations for VR which led us to Rendever, an awesome program we now have in Outreach Services. YVL also received a grant through the Washington State Library, which gave us a 360-degree camera and another Oculus headset. With this technology, we can now create our own virtual experiences for patrons, from simple library tours to immersive storytelling experiences. Currently in the works are a walking tour of the Carpenter Ranches hops processing facility, with a brief history of hops in Yakima, as well as a tour of our Northwest Reading Room. Carpenter Ranches is a 6th generation hops growing family, their family was the first to bring hops to the Yakima Valley. Our Northwest Reading Room is where we have our archives and special collections.

When looking into options for virtual reality in a library setting, it’s important to find something that works for your library. At Yakima Valley Libraries, I am a part of a little outreach team of two in which Janessa Segal-Mains and I offer library services to homebound patrons, who are primarily seniors. You can imagine trying to create programming for seniors with new technology such as VR certainly came with its hurdles. Headsets such as the Oculus come with two controllers, which can take some getting used to for someone with minimal tech experience. We also had to consider mobility issues and quickly realized that our ideal VR program would not require controllers.  There was also the issue of how the programming would be run. We needed a way to control all of the headsets from a central point so we could offer the same program to everyone at the same time. Using a central point would mean we wouldn’t have to try to teach everyone how to navigate the system themselves. So we began searching for networked virtual reality systems and thankfully found multiple options including Viva Vita, MyndVR, and Rendever, which were all made with seniors in mind.

Six patrons enjoying a virtual reality program, looking all around them with VR headsets on.

Patrons exploring Norman Reef through a virtual reality “Under the Sea” program.

Ultimately, after some research, we went with Rendever. We now have a set of eight headsets connected to a centralized tablet giving us access to all kinds of fun content to share with our patrons. These include “guides” which are basically slideshow tours through various areas around the world in 360-degree still images. Through the guides we are able to select a destination, put the patrons there and act as their virtual tour guide by reading them all kinds of information on the history and culture of the area. The information has already been scripted which makes preparing these programs incredibly easy. We’ve taken patrons on tours through parts of Norway and Japan, experienced New Wonders of the World, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales where we got to see the places that inspired the tales! The system also has 360-degree videos known as “experiences” that immerse the patron into an activity or place. Videos range from watching a light show on the Sydney Opera House or playing with kittens to things like skiing in the Rockies and skydiving.

Getting to bring these programs to the patrons is incredibly rewarding. For some of our patrons, these virtual tours are the highlight of their day or even their month. One of the assisted living facilities we go to had to start having two sessions because there was such an interest. In both sessions the patrons spend the whole time oohing and ahhing as we take them on new adventures.

At one program, a patron arrived quite early and asked if he could get started. Since I was already set up, I told him we could watch a short video before everyone arrived. I noticed a skiing video and decided to ask if he would be interested in that, he said “Sure!” During the five-minute video I couldn’t really tell if he was enjoying it but at the end, he lifted his headset up, and with a giant grin said, “Can we do that again?” It turns out he used to ski often when he was younger, so getting to relive that through VR is really exciting for him. By visiting places patrons have lived or traveled to and experiencing some of their favorite activities from days past, they start sharing memories with one another making these programs a deeply rewarding experience for everyone. 

We have a regular patron who joins us for these programs who has macular degeneration and is legally blind. Every month she comes hustling in with her walker and when we thank her for joining us she almost always responds with “Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” When she puts the headset on she says she’s able to see the images more clearly than she sees things regularly. People with vision problems are often able to see more clearly in VR because the screen in the headset is so close to your eyes. So even though you feel like you’re looking out across a vast landscape the visual display is up nice and close.

At another one of the facilities we take these programs to, there is a wonderful activities director who likes to sit in. During a visit when we took the residents to Hawaii, he found a giant piece of cardboard that he waved to create a nice ocean breeze. He then grabbed a cup of water and flicked it on some of the residents (though I’m not sure I’d recommend adding water unless you know it’ll be well received!). Simple things like this not only make it more fun but also more immersive.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to find a system that works for your library and its patrons. Other libraries may be looking for VR programs geared for younger patrons or even something that’s a little more interactive. ClassVR and VRTality are both options we have come across during our research that I highly recommend checking out. ClassVR is another networked system made for educational purposes. VRTality is a program meant to help improve teen mental health through creating their own VR experiences as a group with the guidance and support of library staff.

Virtual reality in the library has the potential to bring such wonderful experiences to patrons of all ages within our communities. These programs have become the highlight of my job! I love seeing the joy we bring to people through these virtual adventures. I hope this is something we can continue to provide for a long time to come and hope VR programming can be expanded upon throughout YVL, and now maybe your library too!

A smiling person with shoulder-length hair looks at camera and wears a baseball cap and pullover hoodie. A small dog can be seen in the background.
Bailley Dalton is a library assistant for Yakima Valley Libraries Outreach Services, bringing the joys of the library to those who are homebound. She is passionate about the connections she brings to her patrons and enjoys getting into shenanigans with her fellow library moles. Outside of work, Bailley has a love of many things including tending her plants, snuggling her pup, playing games with her hubby, painting, and taking in nature any way she can.
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