Developing a Library Strategy for 3D and Virtual Reality

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Bayne: The following interview was recorded at the Coalition for Networked Information Fall 2018 meeting. I'm Gerry Bayne for Educause. 3D and virtual reality technologies show great promise for a range of scholarly fields, as they offer new potential for interactive visualization, and analysis of artifacts, spaces, and data.

Bayne: Lower costs, and greater computational power, have made 3D and VR technologies financially realistic for a broader variety of institutions.The Institute of Museum and Library Services national leadership grant is a partnership between three academic libraries, Virginia Tech, Indiana University, and the University of Oklahoma, to study and make recommendations for library adoption of 3D and VR services. I spoke with two people representing this endeavor. Jamie Wittenberg, who's the head of scholarly communication, and a research data management librarian at Indiana University, and Nathan Hall, director of digital imaging and preservation services at Virginia Tech. I started our conversation by asking about some of the ways 3D and virtual technologies are being used in academia, and the current landscape in which they're operating.

Hall: We've seen, through our participants for our research, we've seen a number of disciplines involved, so anywhere from anthropology, archeology, architecture, on the humanities side, to lots of life sciences, so evolutionary biology, morphology. And then also in engineering, there's material science, additive manufacturing, and biomechanics.

Hall: You had some others?

Wittenberg: Yeah, I think we're seeing it a lot in archeology, digital archeology, but also in paleontology. And one of the examples that I really like to talk about when I try to explain how important these 3D models are for research, is the case of volumetric scans of specimens where if we weren't able to do a micro CT scan on a fossil, in order to see what's inside that fossil, or fossilized rock, you'd have to destroy it.

Wittenberg: So it enables researchers to investigate these physical specimens in a non-destructive way. And in cases like that, it's really crucial to the research process, and to preserving the object for posterity.

Bayne: That's cool. This question might apply more to virtual reality more than the 3D part, but I've been interviewing people for the last five years about VR stuff in academia. And it seems to be very ad hoc up until lately. Is it still that way? I just hear about people, "Well, we got a budget to put a few oculus riffs in our lab, and people are trying them out." Is it becoming more formalized now? Or is it still like people are just doing things here and there?

Hall: I think that's one of the goals of this project is based on the observation that it's very siloed. I think people see technology, they wanna engage with it, so it's easy to experiment with something in that ad hoc way, where we can learn more.

Hall: But I think because there's more institutions that have invested in it, because the costs have fallen, more people are able to participate, so there is enough a community now where we can start to compare. It's hard to be directed and planned, when you can't see what anyone else is doing.

Wittenberg: I had a colleague yesterday at this conference actually come up to me and say, "I heard about your project, I really wanna talk to you, because we're gonna put some VR into our library." And I said, "Well, I'm probably not the best person to talk to. You should talk to Oklahoma." And they're like, "Yeah, we already talked to them. Even if you don't know a lot, I still wanna talk to you." And I think that really gives a sense of the lack of information about these kinds of systems in libraries.

Bayne: It also seems like a lot of the VR systems have been just advancing in fits and starts, so I would imagine there's a lot of people that are like, "I don't wanna invest yet, until they settle. I don't wanna invest in something and then they make a leap forward next year. And I have the wrong system."

Bayne: Do you run into that as well a little bit?

Hall: I think so. I think a lot of places haven't invested in this big for that reason. And I think the private sector to is interested in finding ways to commercialize aspects of it, or provide services that libraries aren't providing. But trying to find the right time to invest. They don't wanna lose out on a market share to someone else, but they also don't wanna invest in something that's not gonna be profitable.

Bayne: It's a tough ... This is the time, when a product's being developed, it's kind of a weird Wild West time.

Bayne: With a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services you formed a partnership to explore strategies around sustainable use of 3D and virtual technologies. How has the partnership come together? And what is your strategy for working together in this pursuit?

Hall: I think two years ago I was starting to ask some of the questions that led to that questions that we've asked in this grant. And I'd heard, I was at a meeting of, I think it was AP Trust, they're a digital preservation consortium, I heard one of Jamie's colleagues at IU mention 3D, so I reached out to her later. And she said, "Well, that's not me. Let me put you touch with my AUL, with Robert McDonald."

Hall: And Robert started saying, "You know we could do this, this would work better as a forum grant." And then he started strategizing ways that this collaboration could really take off.

Hall: So he also mentioned what was going on at Oklahoma. So then that's how the partnership started.

Wittenberg: Over the course of the last, I don't know, year, year and a half or so, there have been these informal meetings happening at Indiana where a couple of people started talking, and having meetings, trying to figure how to solve these real, practical, every day problems that we're having, trying to collect, and preserve and provide access to three dimensional, especially three dimensional objects in our library digital collections.

Wittenberg: And then we started pulling other people in, and having these conversations. So it's really been a great thing to have a more formalized structure to these conversations. An a structure that enables us to really get all of the stakeholders involved as well.

Hall: For the nature of the partnership, Virginia Tech is nominally the lead institution on the project. With each forum, we've each sectioned that off, so that we're each in control the questions and the participants, with advice from each other and collaboration.

Hall: So for Indiana, they were really the lead on the Chicago forum. And Oklahoma was the lead on the Oklahoma forum. And I was the lead on the DC forum. Together we've discussed how to make sure these integrate well together, and they build up on each other. So it's been very much a team project that way.

Wittenberg: In a way, I think those forums really spoke to the strengths of each institution, and the investment each institution has made in trying to support 3D.

Wittenberg: For example, the Chicago where Indiana Bayneed, was really focused on repository infrastructure. And that's an area that we've really been trying to push the envelope in when it comes to 3D.

Bayne: Cool. Let's get into some of the findings you've come across in your partnerships, or some of the best practices you guys have agreed upon. Are there any solid lessons you guys have learned? Or best practices you could share with other institutions looking for virtual technology strategy?

Hall: I think one thing we found was, this gets back to deans and directors trying to decide how to invest in this, and when to invest in this, so I think the most helpful information from that perspective is you could spend a few hundred dollars, or you could spend hundred of thousands of dollars. And either way there's an opportunity to connect a new audience with knowledge in exciting way.

Hall: But technological decisions need to be made with not just budget in mind, but also the needs of the community you're working with. So researchers have more specialized needs, and therefore the models need to be more transparently created, and the access platforms need to facilitate that kind of analysis. So these kinds of features increase technology and labor costs, but if you wanted to just have some sort of 3D program that complements the maker space that you already have, that's probably not as expensive.

Hall: If you wanted to work in tandem with the data management program you already have, that's probably more expensive.

Wittenberg: One of the things that we did in our final forum is we looked at existing models for digital preservation and supporting digital content in repositories. And we asked participants in the forum to map these feature prioritization lists that they made earlier to these models, to see if like are these models that we're using, models like the OIAS model, or the DCC, data curation life cycle, or the fair data principles, are they actually feasible for three dimensional objects.

Wittenberg: And we're finding that in a lot of cases, they aren't. Especially around access. One of the reasons for that is of course many 3D models and VR environments are meant to be playable. So you need to instantiate them in order to engage with them in the way that the researcher or creator intended. And that adds a whole new layer of complexity to the access side. And requires resources that we might not already have in our repositories.

Wittenberg: Something else that's really important, and Nathan talked about this a little bit, but just to emphasize, the kinds of communities that might be using these objects, aren't necessarily the same kinds of communities that we'll see using our other collections.

Wittenberg: So one of the things that we've seen in the literature, and in conversations with some of the folks at these forums, is that educators are really likely to use this kind of content, K through 12 instructors for example. And they might take a three dimensional model, and engage with it in a class, and then print it out, or something like that. And their access needs are gonna be really, really different from those of a paleontologist, who's doing research at the university and needs really precise measurements, for example, or something like that.

Bayne: So there's a lot of complexity around how it's used?

Wittenberg: Yes.

Hall: Yes.

Bayne: What would you advice be to institutions that are maybe hearing this, and they're interested in getting involved, interested in connecting with you guys? Is this something that anybody that's interested can get involved in, with you guys? Or is it a closed system? How's it work?

Hall: We love hearing from potential collaborators, but this would be a great time to mention some of the other projects that are working in the same space.

Hall: Two other IMLS funded projects that were funded in the same cycle as this one. One is called "Community Standards for 3D Preservation," based at Washington University in St. Louis and University of Iowa, and at University of Michigan.

Hall: And they've got a different technique than we do. There's is more open than ours as far as, for working on their final product is very open and participatory framework that people can engage in.

Hall: Ours is more of a Delphi model, where we invited experts to provide these findings. So they're a little bit more grassroots and we're a little bit more top down from selected curated experts.

Wittenberg: I would also say, it's really important, if folks are interested in getting involved, I would definitely say we're publishing a series of papers on our findings, and I would say it would be worthwhile to take a look at those, and really think through what you're trying to achieve by providing access to these kinds of objects. And really assess who the community of users is. And who your primary, secondary, tertiary constituents are, because there are decisions that you will have to make about the curation and description of these object that directly impact those users.

Wittenberg: So an example would be, there's a program called Z Brush, that some folks use to do things like just make models look a little bit nicer, fill in holes, things like that, that could potentially compromise the integrity of the object for research, but makes it a lot nicer for K through 12 educators that wanna print an object. You don't wanna print something with a hole in it.

Wittenberg: So really thinking through who is going to be accessing these and for what purpose, and making sure that you're building that into the design of the infrastructure you're using to serve up these objects.

Bayne: Is there anything else that you guys would like to add that we haven't touched on in this subject matter?

Hall: I think we've all been really fortunate to have very supportive administrators and great program officer at IMLS, who are willing to invest in this project.

Wittenberg: We've also been really fortunate in the community of users that have participated in the forum, and we're really grateful for them. I think that people that are working in this space tend to be highly invested in the outcomes of projects like these, because it really directly impacts how they're able to work, and how they're able to share their research, right?

Wittenberg: I'll also say, one thing that we didn't touch, which is really, I think important, is the issue of copyright, and intellectual property with these objects. That can really be a huge blocker for libraries. We can't really collect and widely share, or distribute, or disseminate content that we don't have a license to share. And there are lot of issues at play when it comes to who owns a 3D object, whether it's even copyrightable, the scans.

Wittenberg: There's some work being done around that among copyright librarians, and people that do IPSO. I'm very hopeful for some progress in that area going forward.

Hall: I think also we were lucky to have a really good advisory board who agreed to help with this, on the projects. They advised on framing some of our research questions. And help extend our network. And helped people who we reached out to, to participate, actually look more closely at us, then they might have, because they saw some of the names, that had already signed off on this. So that helped us build our network more and get more people to participate.

Hall: So we're fortunate to get a lot of people to sign on.

Bayne: What's the next step for you guys? What's the next ... Are you another meeting? Or is there anything coming up that you guys are hoping to accomplish?

Hall: We're working on a few articles right now. We've got one submitted for review. We've got two more that we're in process of validating the findings now. So those will come out.

Hall: And then we're submitting those to places where we can keep the copyright, so that we can redraft them into a future white paper that we want to release in the next year.

Hall: We've got an extension on the grant, so we can spend more time making a good product out of that. We're curious about future research directions as well, and what we'll follow up with.

Bayne: Do you guys have a website, or anywhere someone can go to check out the information?

Hall: Yeah. The website is, so

Bayne: Nathan Hall is director of digital imaging and preservation services at Virginia Tech. And Jamie Wittenberg is the head of scholarly communication, and a research data management librarian at Indiana University.

Bayne: I'm Gerry Bayne for Educause. Thanks for listening.