It’s autumn and I’m in the Incline Village Library in the meeting room, simultaneously climbing Mt. Everest. This is possible through the Oculus Go VR headset on, the visual effects make the landscape seem so real (without the frigid temperatures) that I actually am afraid to cross over from one side of a glacier to the other by way of the icy ladder that keeps one from virtually falling into the indeterminably-deep blue abyss. I take the challenge by running as fast as I can across the makeshift bridge, but in real life I’m running from one side of the room to the other, almost ripping off the headset.
Flash forward to autumn 2019, and now the VR experience is integrated into all Washoe County libraries. At the Sparks Library, four Oculus headsets are available to use/borrow between 3-4 p.m. on the first Friday and 11 a.m.-noon on the second Saturday of every month. Recently, the Sparks Library got an Oculus Quest which is a more compact setup that comes with an all-encompassing headset.
There are 12 different games on the Oculus Go’s, which include giving one the ability to virtually climb Mt. Everest, tour The Louvre, go hang gliding, or even ride a roller coaster.
“There’s one point when the coaster goes off the rails and you see people grab onto their chairs,” says Sparks Library Assistant 2 Colin Biggs. The graphics on the new Oculus Quests offer a more interactive experience with games where you can be a realistic Darth Vader and get into battles with light sabers. In a new Spiderman demo that was recently released, if you don’t shoot webs out in time to grab the sides of buildings then you feel a realistic sensation of falling.
“We have at least 50-60 interactive experiences. On the Sparks Library ones, some are so realistic that it’s hard to remember that you have both feet on the ground,” Biggs adds. Two of the most popular games are Beat Saber and a job simulator experience and typically parents will come in with their kids but it’s local teens that the VR experience appeals to the most.
“This is also a good way of offering services to children with special needs,” Biggs says, as studies show that it helps people with autism or Asperger’s practice social skills and communication in a non-threatening environment. The VR system is so immersive that people can relax and have a good time without having to think about the stress within the real world.
“(The Oculus headset) gives them a barrier. It reduces anxiety as well as providing a safe experience,” Biggs contributes. To use the Oculus equipment, children under 18 must have a signed parental release waiver and their time is limited to 15-20 minutes.
“It’s so popular that we’ve now had to establish a waiting list, but the line moves pretty fast,” Biggs says.
One of the library’s goals with the VR experience is to expand the programming for local senior population by giving them the ability to explore national parks, available through a series of apps curated by National Geographic. Some studies show that VR can help seniors with dementia or simply enjoy a landscape that they wouldn’t be able to get to in person.
After chatting with Biggs, I put on the Oculus Quest headset and have a go at Beat Saber. Before the game is launched, I can see all the real-life features of the library in black and white through the headset; the mapping is very true to reality.
Then some electronic, high energy music starts to play, and the controllers turn into red and blue light sabers. After going through the quick tutorial, the game starts with blue and red cubes are flying at me; I must use my sabers to cut through them before they knock me out. Occasionally, a large concrete-looking block comes at me, and I must duck or move to the side to keep it from taking me out. In the 10 minutes of using it, I moved around more than I did in the last two hours.
“With the coding classes we have here, the VR, and now the 3D printer; it’s fun to see how the library meets the needs of the public. And if you go to a VR arcade, then you must pay to enjoy it. Here it’s completely free,” Biggs says.