Virtual reality programming at PUL offers Princeton opportunities to learn in an immersive extended reality

Student in GradFUTURES program uses VR equipment

Students in the American Higher Education GradFUTURES Learning Cohort led by the Graduate School recently used the new virtual reality equipment available from Stokes Library to visit various university campuses and understand different types of higher education institutions more holistically. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy


A new virtual reality program at Princeton University Library (PUL), hosted by Stokes Library, now offers Princeton University students, faculty, and staff unique opportunities to virtually immerse themselves in their work, both in and outside of the classroom. From virtually experiencing the Battle of Fallujah in order to inform military intervention and public policy to practicing public speaking skills in front of a virtual crowd, the equipment enables Princetonians to enhance their pedagogical experiences, engaging with a realistic, interactive environment. 

For Seth Porter, assistant director of digital teaching, learning and scholarship and head of Stokes Library, this was precisely the goal in purchasing the equipment, as well as creating an in-house VR studio, for PUL. “Extended reality as a pedagogical tool can improve retention and memory of a learning experience through active emotional interaction with the material, compared to static learning objects," he said.

A new initiative at Stokes, the VR program supports education technology, exploration, digital learning and new forms of data visualization through emerging technology. Porter works closely with University faculty and staff to develop course-integrated programming that supports the class curriculum and to design the VR learning experiences. 

In fall 2019, he worked with Professor Rick Barton, lecturer of public and international affairs in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (WWS) and co-director of the University’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative, who utilized the equipment in his WWS junior task force course, Improving the Interventions, to help students gain a better understanding of military intervention and the impact of warfare. 

Using Oculus Quest headsets, undergraduate students interacted with an in-depth 360 degree documentary about the fight for Fallujah. Barton then facilitated a discussion about how it felt to be in battle. Students expressed that they experienced a more realistic sense of life in a war zone and felt better equipped to make more informed policy decisions. One student commented that “the small size of the enemy combatant jail cells made me realize the reality of the situation.”

When asked about how VR enhances the classroom experience, Barton said, “The course requires students to improve their local knowledge, and since there is no field work, the VR creates a sense of immediacy that we all valued. . . A central part of learning is building a personal sense of place and people, and VR provides that in a realistic way.”

Although Stokes primarily serves the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and other social science departments, the equipment, Porter said, lends itself to multidisciplinary opportunities. In the geosciences for instance, he explained, students could immerse themselves in a virtual world to experience the impacts of climate change, or in the architectural field, students could virtually visit the great wonders of the world.

Outside of the classroom, the VR equipment is also available for Princeton students, faculty, and staff to borrow for educational programming including for extracurricular activities. The American Higher Education GradFUTURES Learning Cohort led by the Graduate School recently worked with Porter to use the equipment to virtually visit various university campuses and understand the different types of higher education institutions more holistically. 

“Collaborating with Princeton graduate students to shape the future of the Ph.D. is invigorating work, and using cutting-edge technology like VR headsets is a vital part of this act of re-imagining,” said James M. Van Wyck, Assistant Dean for Professional Development at the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School. “We were delighted to incorporate virtual site visits into our GradFUTURES Learning Cohort and we look forward to integrating virtual reality into our inaugural GradFUTURES Forum on May 1 of this year.” 

Altogether, Stokes owns one Oculus Rift S, seven Oculus Quest headsets, eight Pansonite VR headsets, and 14 Google cardboards, all of which require smartphones for use. Throughout the semester, Porter also facilitates workshops, open to Princeton students, faculty, and staff, using the equipment. (Find the workshop schedule here.) 

“This programming has been an initial success with multiple partners throughout the University. Extended reality, is an innovative emergent educational technology, and this is really just the beginning for Princeton University Library’s involvement and the future of digital learning,” Porter added.

Outside of Stokes, the Engineering Library at Friend Center also offers a virtual reality experience. As part of the 2016 course “A Social and Multidimensional Exploration of Structures” taught by Professor Maria Garlock and Associate Professor Branko Gilsic, the Engineering Library houses a VR exhibition that provides an immersive experience into the “thin shell” structures designed and built in Havana, Cuba in the mid-20th century. Using an Oculus Rift, the exhibition, entitled “Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures,” showcases the structures students and faculty explored during a site visit to Cuba. 

For more information about the Stokes programming, equipment and studio, please contact Seth Porter or visit the VR LibGuide.

Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Library Communications Specialist and Staff Writer

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications