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The Space Sponsored Partnership with ArtsProfessional

By making the most of digital technologies and creative media, libraries can be part of new ways for people to connect and share. Zillah Watson explains how virtual reality (VR) can expand horizons.

VR libraries promotional image

As part of my work with The Space, I have been curating an ambitious digital programme* with Coventry Libraries. Public libraries have become crucial spaces in the community for creativity and independent thought. Yet new technologies, as well as bringing creative possibilities, threaten to open up a digital divide between those with access to them and those without. 

By taking VR to libraries, we can democratise this cutting-edge technology and its immersive content, offering it to audiences who might never otherwise have a chance to experience it. Libraries have proved a perfect space for people to enjoy VR – a place where they feel safe and are willing to try something new, and where librarians are trusted guides, able to encourage people and provide a human touch to the experience. This project has proven that there’s certainly an appetite for it.

The Space, together with the BBC and Libraries Connected, is working to drive forward this VR programme to make content more accessible in libraries.  As the world’s largest public service broadcaster, the BBC is a natural partner. Together with Libraries Connected, it ran a pilot which made it clear that audiences wanted more. 

We’ve put what we learnt from that into practice and we’ve been astounded by the support from Coventry Libraries and the enthusiasm from the librarians. 

Memorable experiences in the virtual world

For VR to be successful in libraries, the content has to be magical, memorable and tell great stories. And the technology has to be easy to use and as stress-free as possible for busy librarians to operate. We worked with Redbox VR to provide headsets with an easy-to-use app, recognising the importance of taking it step by step to build confidence among librarians and audiences alike.

We’re bringing award-winning content, commissioned and created by the BBC, in partnership with leading production companies and artists. It includes a series which takes the audience to the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, including a brush with gorillas in the jungle. There’s also The Turning Forest, a fairy tale in which you ride on a friendly monster and play music with your eyes in a magical ice forest. And there’s an animated Dr Who adventure and a film featuring stuntwomen in India. There’s something for everyone. 

Every three months, working with Diversion Cinema, I curate four new pieces from around the world, selected to work for library audiences. The most popular to date is an epic film in which you accompany two climbers trying to reach the top of Everest. It does what VR is really good at – take you where you feel you’re really there – not just virtually. As you look down, you see the peaks and crevasses beneath you. As you reach the summit, the clouds clear and you get the most wonderful panoramic view. 

The power of VR

We know this is the kind of experience that audiences and libraries love. With the headsets, people can explore places they would never visit in real life. As our understanding of what works improves, we aim to create commissioning guidelines to help creators understand audiences’ needs and drive a new ecosystem of VR content.

The feeling of being transported to another place is known in VR as ‘presence’. It’s very powerful and provides a new way to tell stories about the world in deeply engaging ways. Using VR activates far more of the brain than, for example, watching TV. It allows people to encounter entirely new experiences, acquiring new knowledge and having fun in the process.

As part of the project, the BBC did extensive audience research on VR in libraries, including surveys that measured how memorable the content was. One of the most extraordinary findings was that people remembered their VR experience in great detailed three months afterwards. They also said it made them feel more engaged with the world, raising their interest in news and current affairs. 

Libraries are the perfect VR partner

Libraries provide the perfect setting to widen audience access to VR while home ownership of headsets is still low. It is also a key means to help mitigate against a digital divide that prevents large numbers of people from accessing emerging technology. Libraries play a crucial role in counteracting information inequality.

In the longer term, we’d like to see libraries offer services which enable people to get to grips with more ambitious interactive experiences. Our aim is for this to be a core offering of all libraries. We have designed this project to be scalable over time and to work across other library services. We hope that Coventry is just the start. 

Using VR to create mind-expanding experiences and distribute them via libraries is a visionary idea. Above all, we can use it to reimagine what libraries can be, offering experiences that make them more attractive resources, where people come together to do amazing things they can’t access elsewhere. And in that way, VR can help ensure that libraries have a sustainable future at the heart of their communities.

Zillah Watson is an Associate for The Space and former Head of the BBC Virtual Reality Studio.

 @thespacearts | @zillahwatson

*This VR programme by The Space is supported by Arts Council England and BFI.

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Space, is part of a series spotlighting new ways of creating and distributing digital content, and exploring the wealth of new technologies and platforms coming online.

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