Broward County Library Pilots AR/VR Headset Program with MERGE

Broward County Library, FL, has begun loaning out augmented reality / virtual reality headsets at nine of its 38 branches in a new pilot test with MERGE Labs, a tech startup focused primarily on the K–12 education market.

Over the shoulder view of a girl holding a smartphone in one hand and MERGE augmented reality cube in another. The smartphone displays a holographic heart.Broward County Library (BCL), FL, has begun loaning out augmented reality (AR) / virtual reality (VR) headsets at nine of its 38 branches in a new pilot test with MERGE Labs, a tech startup focused primarily on the K–12 education market. The idea for the test originated when the library approached MERGE about purchasing 100 of its AR Cubes for a new lending program last fall. The foam cubes feature unique designs on each face, which enable MERGE’s marker-based AR apps to make the cubes appear as 3-D, holographic objects, such as fossils or handheld models of the solar system, when viewed through iOS, Android, or Windows tablets or smartphones.

The cubes “are popular in schools,” noted BCL Director Kelvin Watson, adding that staff had suggested offering them at the library. After BCL contacted MERGE about its bulk order, “the CMO of MERGE [Steve Patti] set up a call with me and my team, wanting to know how we were going to use them and offering opportunities for partnerships. He’s interested in seeing how well they’ll work in libraries. After that initial conversation, MERGE donated 90 headsets to us.”

Similar to headsets such as Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR, the headsets work with Android and iOS smartphones. MERGE’s headsets, which retail for about $30, are designed with a soft, flexible material intended to be durable and easy to clean for classroom use.

Although patrons have to use their own smartphones with the headsets, Watson said that the library had not received any reports of patrons having trouble running the MERGE app on their phones. The list of recommended devices on MERGE’s support page indicates that smartphones that are less than four years old are likely compatible.

To promote the new lending program and help interested patrons download and set up the app, BCL has had staff conduct regular demos near the entrance of branches participating in the pilot.

“It’s pretty intuitive,” Watson said. “And we’ve packaged the cubes with instructions. But one of the reasons we’re also demonstrating how they work is to show customers how easy they are to use.”

Patrons can borrow a headset and cube for 21 days, matching BCL’s lending period for books and audiobooks. “Lending them, versus just having them available for use in the library, is helpful,” Watson said. “They can take it home and really explore with it…. I really try to focus on very liberal lending terms, so people can enjoy a resource and get the full experience.”

The MERGE Miniverse portal includes a curated selection of about 300 kid-friendly VR, AR, and 360° videos from sources including NASA, National Geographic, Disney, and Google. The headsets can also be used with any smartphone-based apps on the Google Play and iOS App stores, and all three portals offer a mix of free and paid content. If patrons want to purchase apps for use with the headsets, they’re on their own. But Watson said that “we steer them toward free apps—there’s a plethora of free apps for math, science, anatomy, even engineering.”

The pilot is part of a larger initiative at BCL. “We are really pushing VR, AR, and Mixed Reality,” Watson said. Notably, in 2017, BCL’s African-American Research Library and Cultural Center received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to install a Harlem Renaissance VR exhibit, enabling visitors to use an Oculus Rift headset to explore an immersive virtual representation of Harlem, New York during the Jazz Age. Based on the long-running “Virtual Harlem” digital humanities project by Bryan Carter, associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, BCL’s exhibit is currently touring museums throughout the state of Florida.

And while the library just recently began working with MERGE, Watson said that BCL already has ideas for new applications. “We are exploring the creation of our own MERGE cubes, looking at creating 3-D scans of some of the artifacts [in our archives]. We could then share the artifact in different locations in our community” using the MERGE app, Watson said. For example, BCL has an Emmy awarded to Esther Rolle—obviously an artifact that couldn’t be handled by multiple patrons. But by scanning the Emmy and creating a portable, virtual version “you would then be able to leverage the AR technology,” to enable hands-on exploration with a MERGE cube.

“We’re experimenting with this technology and trying to give our customers access—not just to the technology, but at the same time, access to the collection,” Watson said. “It fits into what my vision is of libraries. You can take the library to the community.”

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Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com, @MatthewEnis on Twitter, matthewenis.com) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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