Stokes Library VR headsets take the stage

Princeton University Library (PUL) has long paired its physical collections with the digital realm, providing access to resources like online periodicals and content memberships, and offering patrons the opportunity to have any of its print articles or book chapters digitized for use. 

PUL’s Stokes Library has also entered the digital space through its Meta Quest 3 headsets. Available for use by Princeton students, staff, and faculty, the headsets have seen applications in coursework, research projects, and campus events alike. 

“The Stokes VR program began in the spring of 2020, so the initial challenge was completely unexpected: figuring out how to share this equipment safely during a global pandemic,” explained Ameet Doshi, Head of Donald E. Stokes Library.

Ameet Doshi addresses Marina Fedosik's Technogenesis class.

Ameet Doshi addresses Marina Fedosik's Technogenesis class. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Once campus activities normalized back to pre-pandemic levels, Doshi found that requests to use the headsets grew substantially. 

“There is a Korean Language course that leverages our VR equipment to help students experience what it feels like to walk down a busy street in Seoul,” Doshi said. “We have also collaborated with the Makerspace to support an Archaeology course where students are able to experience visual representation of the Parthenon in its original glory during the fifth century BC.”

Doshi and Stokes have recently supported various campus efforts to incorporate VR headsets. The staff at Princeton University Concerts (PUC) enlisted Stokes’ headsets to use in their presentation of Mahler Chamber Orchestra's “Future Presence,” a concert experience in virtual reality and spatial sound. This event was open to the public, bringing area residents to campus to experience this novel approach to experiencing music, and was also made free to the University community as part of Wintersession 2024.

The concert, which was viewable and audible through VR headsets and headphones, allowed audience members to wander the stage with the orchestra through this multi-dimensional recording.

“We are so lucky to work on a campus with resources like the Stokes Library,” said Marna Seltzer, Director, Princeton University Concerts/Department of Music Concert Office. Princeton University Concerts partnered with Stokes Library to secure some of the headsets concertgoers would use.

“Pulling together the equipment and ensuring that it would all work flawlessly over a five-day period was a bit nerve-wracking,” Seltzer added, noting that PUC worked with Doshi to secure the use of the headsets a year in advance.

In another application of the VR headsets, Marina Fedosik, a Faculty Lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, implemented the headsets in two of her courses, “The Posthuman,” and “Technogenesis.”

Marina Fedosik instructs a student during her class, Technogenesis in the Engineering Library's Collaboration Hub.

Marina Fedosik instructs a student during her class, Technogenesis, in the Engineering Library's Collaboration Hub. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

In “The Posthuman,” Fedosik deployed the headsets “to engage with primary evidence sourced from VR apps, films, and environments.” 

Fedosik added that students could use the headsets in their projects beyond the confines of class time. For example, she explained, “A student’s essay idea may contribute to a scholarly conversation on VR's capabilities to increase empathy as it analyzes VR film ‘Traveling While Black’ and/or viewers' responses to it. Or, in a class exercise on understanding disciplinary methodologies, students may pitch and critique possible experiment designs based on watching this film in VR.”

Though Stokes will continue to provide access to the VR headsets, Doshi recognizes the concerns presented by the companies invested in developing the technology for consumers. 

“As a librarian, Meta's information gathering and privacy practices are deeply concerning to me,” Doshi said. “Initially, I even considered ending the use of the Oculus headsets because Meta's privacy policies are so antithetical to the library's mission of protecting patron privacy.”

He added, “However, on reflection, I thought we could use the topic of privacy in VR as a teaching and learning opportunity. This led to a collaboration with Ariel Ackerly at the PUL Makerspace on a well-attended 2022 PUL panel discussion with campus experts titled "Privacy and Autonomy in the Metaverse."

Doshi also noted the challenge of finding existing, high-quality education material that’s available and ready to use on the headsets. “That said, there are some experiences that social science students have found relevant and even inspirational,” including ‘Traveling While Black,’ which chronicles the restrictions placed on black Americans traveling throughout the country during the Jim Crow era, "On the Morning You Wake," which explores the risk of nuclear attack on everyday people based upon a false alarm incident that occurred in Hawaii in 2018, and a film series developed by the UNESCO Sustainable Development Goals action campaign. 

“Getting the word out about these policy-oriented VR experiences is challenging given the busy lives of our students and faculty,” Doshi said. “We partner with the MakeNet group at Princeton to showcase our VR equipment across campus and introduce these enriching experiences to the campus community.”

Related Reading: “PUL and CITP host virtual reality panel

Published on February 29, 2024

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Publicity Manager