Mike and Judy Shannon recently decided to do a little thrill seeking and hop on a roller-coaster.
They sat next to one another as they creaked their way up the first peak then descended sharply with barely enough time to catch their breath.
“And I could hear her screaming away,” Mike said of his wife.
Judy said she couldn’t hide her reaction. “I was definitely over stoked,” she said.
Here’s the thing: the Shannons didn’t actually travel to a theme park to ride a coaster — they were, in fact, sitting in the conference room of the St. Johns Public Library’s Southeast Branch, a pair of Oculus Go goggles strapped to each of their heads.
Libraries have long been at the forefront in providing community access to new technologies, and with virtual reality finally beginning to deliver the kind of experiences it’s long promised, VR is increasingly finding a place in library programming and services.
The St. Johns Public Library received a grant from the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that allowed the system to purchase eight Oculus Go headsets, each of which retails for about $199. The plan is to roll out the VR program at the Southeast Branch first, expand it to other branches and eventually let patrons check out the headsets for use at home.
Unlike earlier versions of the technology, the goggles do not have to be plugged into a phone or laptop to connect. Anyone can simply slip on a headset and dive into virtual realms offering a 360-degree perspective; a small hand-held control allows the user to manipulate things like adding rain to a landscape or manipulating game plan.
The menu of applications includes immersive worlds, such as forest or ocean; experiences such as scuba diving or skydiving; educational themes like space exploration; and skill-based games.
The reaction so far has been really positive, said Margaret Petty, assistant circulation manager.
“We had a number of older folks [in a training group] and sometimes when people get to that age they can be complacent, but they were completely open to the experience,” said Petty.
Cheryl Bemiss, reference and adult services librarian, agreed. “Someone will say, ‘Well, I don’t want to do anything too daring,’ and they’re trying skydiving!”
Mike Shannon, 75, believes the applications for VR, especially the educational ones, could be great training for both younger and older people.
“I learned a lot about the solar system in less than 20 minutes,” he said.
There is a little bit of a learning curve, according to Bemiss, who said it can be difficult to help users navigate through different options when the headset is obscuring their sight.
“It’s hilarious watching people do it,” Bemiss said. “They’ll be like ‘Ooh, ahh’ or leaning their head in response to the movement.'”
Advocates of virtual reality say the technology can expand horizons for those who for whatever reason have limitations to travel in their minds and be “present” in an alternative environment.
Judy Shannon came away from her first trial really enjoying being part of an underwater experience meant to relax.
“For me, it was great serenity; it was very tranquil,” Shannon said. “You could see the sea life undulating. I was so engrossed, I couldn’t tell you what time it was. I just left feeling all blissed out.”
Currently, there are workshops planned to introduce virtual reality to patrons. The next one is scheduled for Dec. 17 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the St. Johns County Public Library’s Southeast Branch, 6670 US 1 South, St. Augustine. Space is limited to about 12 people and pre-registration is required; patrons must be over 13. To register, or to set up a one-on-one training session with a librarian, call (904) 827-6900.