With the public release of the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset in March 2016, and with many other affordable VR platforms following, VR is becoming the hottest new platform for video game content this year. At the same time, OU libraries has been developing a VR workstation, Oklahoma Virtual Academic Laboratory (OVAL), for academic teaching and research purposes. Instead of (just) shooting zombies or engaging in other ludic activities in virtual worlds, OU Libraries is exploring ways in which VR technology can contribute to learning objectives in classes and support new modes of scholarly inquiry. Already we have had great success integrating OVAL into classes and/or research projects in the fields of Biochemistry, Architecture and Interior Design, Anthropology, Marketing, English, and many more. Once faculty members see the benefits of visualizing 3D data in an immersive and interactive visualization environment,[i] they begin to see the many ways in which this platform can be used to enhance the teaching of visual and spatial skills in the classroom, and to support their own research endeavors with new tools for analyzing 3D artifacts, such as hominid skulls or biological specimens, that may be too large, small, or fragile to transport or handle directly. The applications of this technology are virtually limitless. OVAL is still being developed, but its latest build is open to the entire OU community now. A total of eight VR stations are currently available across the OU-Norman campus at the Bizzell Library (1st floor, in the Edge), the Innovation Hub (3 Partners Place, South Campus), and at the Law School Library. All of these VR workstations are networked, which enables collaborative classroom use or researcher collaboration in VR across campus.
OVAL was only recently released for public use on the OU Campus in January 2016, yet we are already thinking about how to make it sustainable into the future. First of all, my position as “Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Virtual Reality Preservation and Archiving for the Sciences,” asks me to think about the long-term preservation of research data related to the scholarly use of VR at OU. This fellowship is supported by CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, with support from the Sloan Foundation. As of now, common standards and best practices for the archiving and preservation of VR-related data have not been widely adopted, offering a variety of preservation challenges. On one hand, we have a range of 3D file formats with different degrees of adoption in the VR community, each presenting particular preservation concerns; and on the other hand, we have the OVAL platform itself, which combines hardware from several commercial vendors (Oculus, LeapMotion, 3DConnextion and others), some proprietary software (Unity3D), and custom code developed in-house. Thus, we can see that thinking about how to preserve the 3D objects is closely related to thinking about how to preserve the technology needed to display them consistently. If a researcher publishes a paper based on an analysis that they conducted using a VR simulation of a 3D object, for the sake of reproducibility in the findings, we need to be able to bring back that 3D model and display it in the same manner. Any software and hardware change to the platform could potentially change the viewing environment in unexpected ways, and it is important for us to develop policies and procedures to document any changes that happen to the system.
While we cannot freeze the ever-changing flow of digital technology, in my position as research fellow, I am exploring the following possibilities for ensuring long-term access to 3D objects viewed in OVAL, as well as the OVAL platform itself:
- Assessing the sustainability of different 3D file formats: This will enable us to select and implement only file formats that are likely to be widely supported into the future, and are most likely to be suitable for long-term access.
- Adopt a metadata schema for documenting 3D digital objects: Looking to existing 3D metadata standards and by consulting with experts who have extensive experience working with 3D models, we hope to develop a metadata schema that can be used to describe 3D objects and document their technical attributes, intellectual property rights and any usage restrictions, and provenance.
- Developing methods for preserving and maintaining a collection of old OVAL code, such that we could go back to earlier versions of OVAL to display older content.
- Containerization: In order to make earlier versions of the OVAL platform accessible as technology develops, we are looking into the possibility of using software containers, which create packages that contain all the code and system resources needed to run earlier versions, even as computer system configurations change.
Most, if not all, of these concerns depend on a complex of policies and practices of DOCUMENTATION! For instance, documenting which version of OVAL was used to view a particular artifact for a particular research project, is related to documenting the relationships between the digital model, the original artifact and the techniques used to create the digital model. Establishing effective guidelines for consistently and accurately documenting relationships between the original, the digital copy and the display platform, ensures that any research claims made about data visualized in OVAL can be verified or reproduced by other researchers at different institutions into the future.
As you can see, we have our work cut out for us! Please follow this ongoing project on the project website (coming Winter 2016): vrpreservation.oucreate.com
By Zack Lischer-Katz
Research Fellow in Data Curation
University of Oklahoma Libraries
[i] Elizabeth Pober (OU College of Architecture) and Matthew Cook (OU Libraries) have identified the key visual-spatial benefits of viewing 3D objects in a VR environment in their 2016 article, “The Design & Development of an Immersive Learning System for Spatial Analysis and Visual Cognition,” available here: http://bit.ly/2gmPwbM