January 12, 2022

Is Extended Reality Shaping the Future of Academic Libraries? This Dean Thinks So.

Mary Ann Mavrinac, vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester Libraries, shares insight into how the campus community directed the development of Studio X, the library’s new extended reality hub featuring advanced technology and expert training 

“I don’t believe in ‘if you build it, they will come.’ You can build something, but they won’t come if you don’t know what your users want,” Mavrinac said. It’s the guiding principle she and her team followed throughout the ideation and planning of the library’s new high-tech hub, Studio X. Located on the first floor of the Carlson Science and Engineering Library, the 3,000 SF space allows students and faculty to participate in immersive learning experiences.

Equipped with technology that supports virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and everything between (extended reality or XR), Studio X allows researchers to perform tasks such as visualizing large data sets and safely experimenting with hazardous materials by creating a virtual environment. Studio X broadens the range of possibilities for discovery and instruction, but what makes it truly special is its source of inspiration. CannonDesign collaborated with the university to design a facility that the campus community not only requested but also intimately shaped. From inception to completion, student and faculty preferences were integrated with expert knowledge to deliver a space tailored to serve the entire campus community.

We spoke with Dean Mavrinac to learn more about the process and impact of the project. She wanted to underscore that the success, to date, of Studio X is a team effort, much of it led by Digital Scholarship and Studio X director, Emily Sherwood.

 

There aren’t many academic libraries that offer a space like Studio X. What is it, and how did the project begin?

The project began in fall 2017 when Lauren Di Monte joined our team and learned from the faculty that there was a lot of research activity in extended reality and other immersive technologies. We thought it was something the library could get involved in since we had close to 50 researchers engaged in XR technologies. So, we set out to better understand that landscape and how the researchers would engage with any initiative we developed, whether it was a space or specialized expertise. We knew a generic cave wouldn’t work for them, so we thought about what we may be able to do to help them tackle specific research questions. As it turned out, we pivoted to a space and service that would provide an easy on-ramp to those less familiar with these technologies and related needs.

Today, Studio X is a collaborative hub for extended reality where students and faculty are immersed in learning and teaching in ways that just aren’t possible without advanced technology. It’s a high-tech space that allows exploration, experimentation and experience that truly brings education to life.

What was the goal of Studio X? Who is it for?

The overall goal was to offer physical space, a program, services, technology and expertise that students and faculty needed—and expertise was really big. The user research told us that they wanted a space and experts in the space to teach them how to use and apply the technologies. We approached this goal by providing an on-ramp that made it easy for people to gain access to and experience with XR technologies.

Whether a person is an advanced researcher or a novice user, we’re good at helping people feel comfortable to explore their questions. The library is an interdisciplinary crossroads at the university, so it could be someone studying history, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, religion, ethics—whatever it is—if they’re interested in using XR technologies, we provide the support they need to feel welcome.

Why was it important for the campus community to be engaged in the development and design of Studio X?  

Since the beginning, this project has truly been fuelled by the campus community. The steering committee was co-chaired by two faculty members and two librarians and included graduate students and undergraduates. We built a community by reaching out to students and faculty to learn what they were researching and what they were interested in. We stayed connected with the community through newsletters and conversations.

Our goal was to listen to what students said they wanted. If you know the width and depth of the tables they want and the type of chairs they want because you’ve asked them, they’ll come and settle in. But they won’t come if you haven’t listened. So, providing a detailed, functional program to the CannonDesign team was something we insisted upon. When we begin with asking people what they need and then deliver it, they recognize what they’ve gotten. When they walk into Studio X, they recognize they got what they asked for.

Studio X was developed during the pandemic when the campus was inactive. What did your team do to build excitement around the new space? 

When we launched a soft opening a few months ago, we didn’t have to go looking for business. Since AR and VR are technologies that don’t have to be on-site to use, there were a couple of initiatives that occurred during the pandemic when Studio X wasn’t yet built. In January, the virtual Dream Challenge allowed students to reimagine their favorite spaces at the River Campus through immersive technologies. Two teams of students created their dream spaces using XR technologies. Our team created other fun things— like the Quad Fox (a VR version of a rogue fox that had been on campus for about a year)—to catch people’s eye. So it started in fall 2017 with us engaging faculty and students from the first moment, and then we stayed engaged with them. I think that’s the right way to do things and it’s the reason our learning spaces are so successful.  

How is Studio X currently being used? 

We had a lot of experts who have jumped at the opportunity to get into the space—researchers in electrical engineering, computer science and chemical engineering. A faculty member from chemical engineering partnered with a faculty member from the Warner School of Engineering on a pedagogical project—they created a virtual chemical reactor so that students can learn without the risk of being harmed. Other researchers use high-end workstations. Students use project rooms to work on grant-seeking projects. There was a very quick uptake of the space because we created a resource the community needed. 

As the learning environment continues to shift to meet student expectations, in what ways may Studio X increase the diversity, equity and inclusion represented in the library’s collections? 

There’s an infinite capacity to utilize VR technologies to bring some of our rare and unique collections to life. We have researchers that work in Ghana, for instance, that are reconstructing Elmina Castle, a castle that was originally a Dutch castle and then a Portuguese castle, and then became a slave trading post on the coast. Some of our students go there and do archaeological digs, but of course, most can’t. We’re supporting the students in rebuilding the structure virtually. As another example—and we’re not doing this yet, but it’s possible—we have letters from Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass. We could recreate “a day in the life” of these iconic historical figures. It would be a virtual, immersive experience based on fact.  

We have a major experiential learning project with the Department of History that we’ve been collaborating with since 2013. Students read letters in the William Henry Seward family papers—they transcribe them, analyze them and develop new knowledge. Imagine taking that one more step and actually creating virtual environments that students can immerse themselves in. We have these types of unique items in collections that are just waiting to be reborn through this kind of technology. Studio X can play a huge role in teaching and understanding the histories of diverse communities. 

What do you think Studio X signals for the future of these types of spaces in academic libraries? 

I think the development of specialized learning spaces are a trend. There’s an intersection of specialized expertise, programming, technology, service, collections and other tools that respond to a particular domain that is at the heart of these types of spaces. I think we should be responding to research by listening to where the big trends are going. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are investing tons of money in the technologies we have in Studio X. We know what the trends are, and I believe the library should serve as a strategic asset for the university, functioning as an interdisciplinary crossroads for students and faculty who teach or are pursuing competitive grants. Library leadership has to think about it that way, and I got a lot of inspiration from North Carolina State University’s Library. That library is always five steps ahead of everyone else, and they do this so well.  

This is the future. If we’re listening to our users, students and faculty and watching the technological trends—if we know where the research emphasis is, our libraries will always be in this zone. The most important trend is that students want to experience what they’re learning so that they can internalize and then create new knowledge. That’s how they go out into the world and say “I can actually do this.” Students that have been working in Studio X have been getting jobs because they actually do programming, they’re conversant with technologies and they’re skilled at creative problem-solving. The library is co-curricular. We can augment and supplement classroom instruction so our students can go out there and be successful in the world. 

Watch an introductory video on Studio X