October 20, 2017

Carl Grant on Virtual Reality and How to Build an Interdisciplinary Hub

The University of Oklahoma (OU) Libraries continue to pioneer the development of custom content for virtual reality (VR) stations in academic environments. Developed by the emerging technology staff at the Bizzell Memorial Library, the Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory (OVAL) was launched in early 2016 in the library’s Innovation @ the Edge space. This summer, the library was recognized with Campus Technology’s Education Futurists award. And last week, the library hosted what was possibly the first academic VR class held across multiple remote locations—an archaeology seminar with 15 participants in seven locations in both Oklahoma and Arizona.

LJ recently caught up with Carl Grant, associate dean of knowledge services and chief technology officer for OU Libraries, to discuss a few of the ways the library is helping faculty incorporate VR and other emerging technologies into research and coursework, as well as recent remodeling projects, and how high tech and new collaborative spaces both play key roles in OU’s effort to make the library the “intellectual crossroads” of the university.

Library Journal:  LJ and School Library Journal have covered a couple of the projects at the Bizzell Memorial Library. How did the Innovation @ the Edge space get started, particularly the OVAL/VR stations?

Carl Grant: We started it in January 2016. But a little bit before that, when we opened the Galileo’s World exhibition [in September 2015] we had a VR station where we ran Galileo’s perception of the way the universe looked through his telescope…. We had contacted NASA, and gotten [modern] images of the universe. You could switch between the two. You could, in Virtual Reality—3-D, 360 degrees, basically it was like you were in a rocket ship—go soaring through the universe the way Galileo saw it, or the way NASA shows it to us. You could really see where Galileo got it right, and where he was a little fuzzy around the edges, because he didn’t have the powerful instruments that we have today.

What was fascinating to me…was how everybody was flocking to that…. Interest spanned generations. It really planted the seed for us that VR would be high-draw, and we needed to put VR stations in the [Innovation @ the Edge center]. It’s just so transformative for people to experience it. We’ve introduced the technology to our staff…. We put out a special invitation to deans around the university to come and try it out…and every dean who we managed to get into that VR station, when they climbed out of the chair, would say, “I want this in our classrooms in the next year.”

What are some of the ways the library is currently using VR for education and research?

We’ve got a number of projects…. The law school, I think, is fascinating because they want to do crime scene replication. Take the testimony from the witness, recreate it in in virtual reality using actual photographs from the scene, and see if what the witness on the stand said can be [verified or disputed]…. Can you see what that person said they were able to see, or was there a tree in the way?

We’re seeing a lot of take up in the engineering field, which you would expect. For instance, we have one professor who is…studying corrosion in fuel cells. The only way you can see it is to get a really fine scope in the [fuel cell] and film it…. Then you basically just have a video. But we can turn that into virtual reality, [enabling users to] explore the inside of the fuel cell and see what might be causing the corrosion.

We’ve got folks doing biochem work and cancer research…. We can take a scan of a tumor, load it into VR, go 360 degrees around it, take accurate measurements to six decimal points, and hand a surgeon a detailed map of the tumor…. It’s in early stages, so there’s still a lot to be proven, but conceptually, it looks possible.

And we’ve been working with someone in air traffic control who wants to [develop a way] to track eye movement of a VR user to see if [trainees] are looking at the right thing on a scope when they are working, or if they are getting distracted.

Matt Cook and Sarah Clayton have both been recognized as LJ Movers & Shakers during the past couple of years for innovative projects they’ve been working on at OU. How do you cultivate talent?

You have to find the right mix of personalities, and one thing we are always looking for is a little bit of entrepreneurial drive…. Those kinds of people are really excellent for this kind of work, because you’re really in a frontier, an unknown land with…new technology. You don’t know where it’s going to take you and you don’t know how you’re going to get there, so you can’t be risk-averse. You need people who are willing to try, to make mistakes and pick up and learn from them, and go forward.

They also have good people skills—they need to be able engage people, talk to them, make them comfortable. They also have to be capable of earning a professor’s respect—capable of solving their problems quickly…. I’ve been very fortunate with [Cook and Clayton] and our other emerging tech librarians. They all have those skills, and they’re just great at this.

And [when you find employees with those traits], don’t micromanage them. I really am very careful to make sure that they have a lot of freedom to solve problems on their own. I’m there to guide.

The library is undergoing several remodeling projects right now, including your new Learning Lab, the Zarrow Faculty and Graduate Student Center, and a new space for the Daniel J. and Ruth F. Boorstin Collection. How are those progressing?

Every space in that Learning Lab has a student in it. We’ve got all of these wonderful new seating areas in all sorts of new configurations—cubicle areas, collaborative spots…. There’s quite a focus at [OU] on undergraduate research—helping them learn research skills, so that as they advance in their academic career, they’re well positioned. The point of the Learning Lab is to try and get students to spend ten minutes up front getting advice [from library staff] on how to do a project, before running off and spending three hours on something that [is ultimately unproductive]…. It helps draw them into the library where they’re surrounded by expertise and resources of all types, and we can connect them to all of that quickly.

In October, we’ll open the Zarrow Faculty and Graduate Student Center, which is on lower level two of the library. It used to be our cataloging [department], but our cataloging staff has moved offsite to our library services center…. One of the draws of this particular space is that it looks out over what is called the Canyon Garden, one of the few outside views this library has through large windows…. We’ve remodeled the whole space. Because it’s for faculty and grad students it’s not as techy and chrome as the CLC [Helmerich Collaborative Learning Center], it’s more wood, fireplaces, and nooks that are cozy. But there’s also a whole suite of offices that faculty can use for a few hours or a week while they’re working on a project…. And there are a lot of collaborative spaces to help them work together. What we’re trying to do is pull the faculty in from across campus, into events and into [spaces where] working together will produce better research, better pedagogy.

And the Boorstin Collection also used to be on lower level two…so we are remodeling a space in our 1929 building that campus IT had been using as a computer lab…. That one we are being careful about, since [the building] is on the National Register of Historic Places, but we’ve been able to clear all of the hurdles to get the space remodeled. It has really beautiful woodwork in it, and it will be a wonderful home for that collection. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of faculty receptions and events in that space. Again, for us, it’s a way for us to draw them into the library. Every time we can get faculty in the library, we can expose them to more of what we’re doing.

You’ve described the library as the intellectual crossroads of the university, and with all of these initiatives, part of the goal is to attract faculty and encourage collaboration. Why is this so important?

I think it’s crucial. Every university I’ve ever been to, people get into their colleges, and they get very “siloed” there. That’s where they do their work, they’re teaching their classes in those same buildings, a lot of their social events are there. They end up getting isolated within their domains of expertise. So what we try and do in the library is fuel interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary collaborations, because we know that’s going to result in better research and better pedagogy.

But, [first] you have to get them out of their colleges. So you have to build something that has enough draw—intellectually, entertainment-wise, whatever it is—you’ve got to have something that is going to get them into your building so you can start making introductions.

And what I think our librarians do so well, particularly our digital scholarship and emerging tech people, is that they listen to the problems [faculty] are trying to solve, and then they say, “You know, another professor was trying to do the same thing, but they did it this way, using this tool. Have you ever thought about that?” And most of the times, they haven’t. If they’ve just been talking to their own peers in their own domain, there tends to be a common view on how you solve a problem. But when you talk to the other domains, they’re solving [similar] problems with entirely different approaches and tools. When you start intersecting those people, you start finding great solutions.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

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

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