May 21, 2017

AR, VR Lead Top Tech Trends Discussion | ALA Midwinter 2017

LITA LogoAugmented reality (AR) technology is not new, but the growing ubiquity of smartphones is making it possible for libraries and other cultural institutions to create new applications that allow patrons to explore collections in new and exciting ways, Cynthia Hart, emerging technologies librarian, Virginia Beach Public Library, explained during the Library Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel on January 22 at the American Library Association’s Annual Midwinter conference in Atlanta.

Hart was joined by Bill Jones, Information Delivery Services (IDS) Project creative technologist, State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, Milne Library; Gena Marker, teacher-librarian, Centennial High School, West Ada School District, Boise, ID; Meredith Powers, young adult librarian, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL); and moderator Ken Varnum, senior program manager, University of Michigan Library, in a discussion that covered AR, virtual reality (VR), trends in teaching and technology, gamification, community driven technology innovation, and more. In a shift from recent years, the panel followed a new format, adopted at ALA Annual in Orlando last summer, in which panelists focused on topics that they had agreed upon as a group beforehand.

AR can be traced back to heads up displays used in airplanes in the 1950s, and mainstream use has been growing since the 2000 release of Hirokazu Kato’s open source ARToolKit, which enables the overlay of computer generated imagery on video, Hart noted. And “today, augmented reality has had a huge boost with smartphones,” she said, citing the new “Lumin” mobile tour launched by the Detroit Institute of Arts on January 25, and the Mythical Library Maze AR app launched in 2015 by The Reading Agency, a UK-based charity, to supplement summer reading programs at participating UK libraries with interactive posters, stickers, and games.

The breakout success of the mobile game Pokémon GO during the summer of 2016 helped introduce the broader public to the technology, and libraries have an opportunity to create apps that offer patrons entertaining new ways to explore collections in greater depth.

“I do think it is a tool that we can use very easily at libraries and museums to assist our customers in a variety of different ways—providing information, providing navigation, or just answering questions,” she said.

Virtual Growth

Hart and Marker each emphasized the differences between AR and VR. Unlike augmented reality—which aims to provide users with additional information in real-world, real-time settings—the goal of VR is to submerge users in a simulated world that users can experience and/or manipulate.

The cost of VR equipment had long posed a significant barrier to entry for consumers and many institutions, but the recent launch of VR headset kits priced under $800, along with the launch of new lines of VR-capable smartphones, puts the technology within reach for enthusiasts, and many library patrons are curious to learn more.

“I’m a high school librarian. I don’t have a $100,000 budget—or anywhere near that—to get the latest and greatest technology,” Marker said. “So I’m always looking out for new technology trends, while at the same time, looking for low price point [solutions] to bring those to my students. I think that’s necessary…. All libraries are supposed to be transformational places for patrons, no matter the age or type of patrons. And although my budget won’t allow me to purchase the latest HTC Vive or even an Oculus Rift, I can purchase a $20 Google Cardboard [viewer designed for VR-capable smartphones]…to bring virtual reality to high school students.”

Marker said that she also maintains relationships with local partner institutions such as the Meridian Library District, which owns an Oculus Rift headset and a VR-ready computer.

The library’s “outreach department makes time to come to my school to bring [its] Oculus Rift or other emerging technologies,” she said. “I want my students to know enough about new technology trends that they can be aware when they’re on social media or even just watching TV commercials, and know what’s out there.”

Powers added that her BPL branch did not have the budget to purchase multiple Google Cardboard viewers, but acquired one unit, and she spent about $50 on raw materials—including plastic lenses, Velcro, and cardboard—to enable groups to make their own viewers.

And Hart suggested that libraries might consider using a camera capable of recording panoramic, 360 degree VR photos and post them on the library’s website—a simple way to enable any VR user to take a “virtual tour” of a branch.

Fun and Games

The conversation shifted to trends in education and technology, and Powers noted that she had been closely following the DuoSkin project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Wearable technology has been a buzzy word for a while, and I don’t think it has revolutionized library services in any way, but I’m super interested in MIT Media Labs’ new DuoSkin [temporary] tattoos. They’re metallic temporary tattoos that can act as a circuit, they activate LEDs, they take inputs, and it seems like a really fun and inexpensive way to get teens super-excited about experimenting with electronics, graphic design, and computer science. The downside is, it’s not available yet,” although Powers added that it might eventually be possible to emulate DuoSkin with DIY projects.

Gamification was another established trend that the panel revisited. “In the in-school library setting, we need to have fun,” Marker said. “We need to engage students in a different way than we do in a classroom. We need to give them new experiences and allow them ways to participate. Using gaming platforms that are freely accessible…is definitely the way to go,” she said, suggesting platforms and apps such as Kahoot!, Socrative, Quizlet, and Quizalize.

Inter Library Collaboration

Jones concluded the primary portion of the panel discussing community-driven technology innovation within the library field, grounding his talk in an explanation of SUNY Geneseo’s Information Delivery Services (IDS) reciprocal lending consortium. The IDS team recently developed IDS Logic, a server-level add on to OCLC’s ILLiad, which helps participating IDS libraries automate interlibrary loan (ILL) workflows.

“We go to our community [of IDS libraries] and we ask them, what types of things do you need?” Jones said. Based on community feedback, one feature developed for IDS Logic is a Lending Availability Service that extracts ISBNs from ILL requests, checks the library’s z39.50 server, and applies several availability rules to determine if the item is available for lending.

“If you’re processing an interlibrary loan transaction and you’re going to lend to another library, you’ve got to look up the call number, shelving location, and the availability in the catalog before you can even route it to staff to go get pulled off the shelf,” Jones explained. “This service will import all of that information, and if that transaction is not available, it will automatically cancel it. That saves that staff [time].”

Currently, other IDS Logic services include the related Borrowing Availability Service, a Lending Book Chapter Availability Lookup, a Book Chapter Direct Requester, and a Custom Transaction Router Emailer.

Libraries looking to work together on development projects will find distributed networks very helpful, he said, and suggested conferencing platforms such as GoToMeeting, Zoom, and free solutions such as Skype.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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