Virtual Reality at the Library

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The McAllen Public Library is a bridge to new worlds through information access, and next Wednesday, June 15th from 4:00-6:00, we will be your bridge to new worlds through virtual reality!  It is going to be one of our most exciting programs ever, and you do not want to miss out!  (Trust me, I tried it last week and it is really cool, you do not want to miss out.)

Until very recently, I had heard of these virtual reality (more commonly referred to as VR) headsets, but did not know anything about them and thought they were just the latest technological advancement for serious gamers.  Although gaming is one of the uses for these headsets, they can be used for practical purposes as well.  Realtors can use them to show properties, teachers can use them to take their students on field trips around the world, and they can aid in conquering fears, like practicing public speaking to a virtual audience.  Stanford University has even created a Virtual Human Interaction Lab, to study the ways that virtual reality can affect human interactions and psychology in real life.

87db9b0503c4fc77f3fcae5293aac600There is a very wide range of headsets, from the most basic $15 Google Cardboard into which you just insert your smartphone, all the way to the $600 Oculus Rift and the $800 HTC Vive.  The more advanced headsets must be connected to a computer and come with room light sensors, tethers, headphones, and hand controllers, so that you can use your hands in the game.  The goal of all of them, however, is to create as immersive an experience as possible.  Once you put the headset on, everything that you see is life-size.  If you move your head, your view in the virtual world will change.  If you turn around in a circle, you will turn around in a circle in the virtual world.  If you are using a headset that comes with hand controllers, you can grab things, shoot things, and throw things in the virtual world.  Even the Google Cardboard experience is more immersive than you might think.  Imagine Google Street View in Google Maps, but you are the little man on the screen in the street.

The way all of these headsets work is that they create two different images, one for each eye, and have a lens that manipulates how your eyes see the images.  An article that explains exactly how they work, in much more detail than I can, can be found here.

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My impression of these headsets, especially the more advanced ones, is that it is like stepping into a cyberpunk story.  The ones that immediately come to mind are Total Recall and Caprica, the short-lived prequel to Battlestar Galactica.  As you might imagine with anything that seems like it came straight out of a sci-fi movie, there might be some unwanted side effects that have yet to be studied.  Some people do report feeling nausea and vertigo while using the headsets, and it is not recommended for children.  Also, since it is such an immersive experience, there might be psychological side effects due to prolonged use, which have yet to be studied.  However, as with any new technology, it will all depend on how you use it.

If you are thinking about investing in your own VR headset, check out these reviews and comparison charts from Wired and PC Magazine, as well as the first impressions of this writer for the Wall Street Journal.  Last but not least, try some headsets out for yourself at our Virtual Reality Demonstration next Wednesday, June 15th, from 4:00-6:00 at the Main Library!  VR Demo


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