Libraries at Forefront of Educational Virtual and Augmented Reality

Navy ROTC students practice ship management during a virtual simulation at the James B. Hunt Library.

Navy ROTC students practice ship management during a virtual simulation at the James B. Hunt Library.

There was a time when the concept of virtual reality might conjure images from a science fiction movie, but for today’s NC State University student, it’s increasingly a real-world part of learning.

Take NC State senior Chris Harrison, for example. The biological sciences major can see the merits of the technology in his own studies and across disciplines.

“Augmented and virtual reality give students an ‘almost’ hands-on experience that can be repeated at pretty much any time,” Harrison said. “I can dissect a frog once in an anatomy lab and if I don’t learn enough from that, I have to settle for things that don’t nearly come close to the ability to actually experience it myself [such as images or text].”

“With a virtual reality frog dissection, I could repeat [the process] over and over again until I can actually find a frog liver without difficulty.”

The concepts of augmented reality and virtual reality are poised to move into the mainstream of college learning, and NCSU Libraries is committed to serving as a central hub to make that happen.

The publication Campus Technology differentiates these technologies in the following way: “While virtual reality immerses people in a computer-generated simulation of an environment, augmented reality overlays computer-generated visuals on the physical environment.”

Those who experienced the Pokemon GO craze this year experienced a version of augmented reality, while Harrison’s example of a simulated frog dissection can be classified as virtual reality.

David Woodbury, associate head of learning spaces and services with NCSU Libraries, said the library staff views augmented and virtual reality as an emerging technology and sees their role in providing access to the technology across programs and colleges.

“People want to get their hands on it – to figure out if it’s the right tool for them,” he said. “Through the library, we democratize access. No matter what department you’re in, you can have access.”

The applications are almost limitless. One example is 360-degree video, where an environment is video recorded in every direction at the same time and which provides a virtual reality experience immersing students in their surroundings.

“Part of what makes VR interesting and powerful is it can really transport you to another place,” Woodbury said. “You start to feel like you’re there.”

NC State’s fire ecology department takes its students on a virtual reality field trip to the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Students are able to experience a 360-degree view – as if they’re standing in the middle of the real environment. The video can be manipulated to look left, right, up and down, and offers a complete view of their surroundings.

Meanwhile, over in the food bioprocessing and nutrition sciences department, 360-degree video is used to simulate food safety inspections.

“That kind of content is fairly easy to produce, and then you can make it available to students,” Woodbury said.

The use of augmented and virtual reality technologies does come with challenges, and that’s where additional financial support can play a role in keeping NC State at the forefront.

In some cases, a virtual reality experience requires moving around in a room, which means dedicated space is needed, Woodbury said. It can require special computers as well, and production of content requires equipment, he added.

The libraries hope to serve as a hub of knowledge, where staff will know which departments are using which technologies on campus, and be able to guide those interested in using the technologies to those with expertise and experience, according to Woodbury.

“We’re in a really good place – the challenge is, can we scale to meet demand?” he said.

Continued support will make this expansion possible, as well as provide the means to bring in experts to give faculty and students the tools they need to use augmented and virtual reality successfully.

From a student perspective, Harrison said he believes augmented reality is quickly going to become an important part of the lives of younger generations.

“A fairly large portion of Generation Z is growing up with constant access to the Internet and I think they will quickly adapt to it bleeding over into their real lives,” he said.

He sees virtual reality as having great potential for education and training – as some of the earlier examples showcase.

“Getting this technology into classes would really bring this stuff, that we can’t normally see, out of the textbook pages and right in front of us where we can experience it,” Harrison said.