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HHH: Extended Reality (XR)

2018 September 26
by Henry Stokes

Logo for Henry's High-Tech Highlights

Hi there, Henry here! I’m starting a new monthly column for the blog called “Henry’s High-Tech Highlights.” For each post, I’ll share my thoughts on a different emerging technology and its relevance to libraries.
Today’s highlight: Extended Reality (XR)

What is it?

Extended Reality (XR) refers to real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables. That’s a mouthful, but in other words, XR is the catch-all term that includes Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR). It’s the whole enchilada.

Tech in Context:

Not only should you not be afraid of XR, you should care about its development and emergence. After all, it’s only natural! We humans naturally want to interact and make sense of the world. We desire to abstract knowledge and communicate it with each other. And to accomplish this over the millennia, we have used whatever technology was available to us at the time. It was a big deal when we invented paper and could print language on it: finally, we had a technology at hand that could help us.

Photo of people looking at map

Food for thought: A map is an example of Augmented Reality (AR)

And what did libraries do with this paper technology? We collected instances of it and made it available to other people. Thus, the various abstracted versions of our knowledge of reality could be shared widely.  But I’ll get back to libraries in a second.

After paper technology came chalkboards (and its descendants, the whiteboards), followed later by televisions, computers, and now touchscreen mobile devices.  What do all of these technologies have in common? They rely on screens: flat rectangles.

Since the very beginning, our way of abstracting the knowledge we have of the world, of making sense of it and collaborating with each other, has all been done on flat surfaces.

But the World is no longer flat.

We’re about to do something completely different. We’re going to step into the screens and actually immerse ourselves in a whole new world, and a wide one at that: 360°. That’s where Extended Reality (XR) comes in.

Infographic showing evolution of tech interfaces, from flat screens to VR

(Credit: Vladimir Belochkin, RomanP, sandra, art shop, Simon Farkas, Luis Prado from Noun Project)

XR is the emerging technology that we have at hand now. Just as we took up the pen and parchment and used that to help us to interact with the world, share our ideas, and teach and learn from each other, we’ll do the same now with XR.  XR lets us think about interacting with our systems beyond clicking or touching icons on a flat rectangle, allowing us to use voice, gestures, brain waves, and even our internal states that only an Artifical Intelligence can sense and interpret.

Photo of man using AR smartglasses

Where is it?

We’re not seeing widespread adoption and integration of VR and AR yet. The video game Pokemon Go has been the closest we’ve come to it hitting the mainstream. Though it’s getting more affordable all the time (self-contained Oculus Go was introduced this last summer for only $200), the technology is still in its nascent stages in terms of size and adaptability.  The truth is that for something like AR to be fully embraced, it needs to be brought to regular people in the form of unobtrusive smartglasses, and not the giant visors that are currently available. The big goggle headsets, such as the Microsoft Hololens, Meta2, and Magic Leap, are great in your living room, but don’t work well out in the world – and not just because you’ll get funny looks; they actually don’t function as they should. It would be like if you knew iPhones were invented, but you couldn’t take them out of your house yet.

This is all set to change soon, and possibly faster than we think. Just last week, an article announced that Magic Leap is Bidding on an Army Combat Contract. This could have a big impact on AR’s wide adoption.  It’s a great idea to get ready and start thinking about how XR will impact libraries.

How it’s being used:

Whenever there’s a new technology, it’s helpful to ask the question, ‘What problem is it going to solve for you that you can’t solve today?’

VR in particular is special in that it can hack your senses. It physically fools you into feeling something. Filmmakers can use this to encourage empathy, and trainers can use it to make learners even more viscerally connect with their subject matter.  Therapists can help their patients experience VR simulations tailored to treat their specific ailments. There is huge untapped potential here.

Here are some other key roles for XR:

  • Virtual field trips
  • Military & medical training
  • Coaching – e.g., dating lessons, public speaking
  • Film-making

Training and simulation is where we’ll see the most use. Expect to employ XR to train yourself and your patrons.

Here is a fun video that shows side-by-side a time-lapse of a trainee employing an AR interface (visible within his smartglasses as he works) compared to him using a print manual (where he has to stop and go back and forth):

VR can allow us to experience historical events in new ways. Here are two great recent examples:

  • Virtual MLK project – use VR to experience firsthand a famous Martin Luther King, Jr. speech
  • Dimensions in Testimony (DiT)  – Holograms in VR sync with a chatbot using recordings of Holocaust survival testimonies so that participants can converse with them as if in same room

How are libraries using it?

If you are new to XR and libraries, here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve done so far:

  • Allow patrons to check out the equipment
  • Create spaces where patrons can experience the technology and provide staff to give assistance for research projects and other purposes
  • Use AR apps via mobile devices to engage with patrons and enhance their experience within the library’s physical spaces and with the library’s resources.  This can be done in the form of exhibits (especially for delicate, rare, or one-of-a-kind materials), events, and library instruction

Logo for Mythical Maze


“Mythical Maze” summer reading

This successful UK program in 2014 used AR app and resulted in a 20% increase in participation.


Future use ideas:

Lighbulb iconImagine: A patron explores a VR representation of the library from the comfort of her home. She pulls a desired book off the virtual shelf which automatically reserves the title so she can pick-up the actual physical item later.

Lighbulb iconImagine: A patron can look at the back of his physical library card and see his patron info as a hologram, including checked-out items. On the front is a 3D compass leading him to the desired material on the shelf.

Lighbulb icon

Imagine: What else comes to mind for you when thinking about XR and libraries? Send your ideas to Henry at and I’ll share them during future Henry’s High-Tech Highlights!

Henry Stokes of me using Vive

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