Biting Off More Than I Can Chew: Lessons Learned from a Suspended Virtual Reality Research Project

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

As you might know from reading my bio, for the past couple of years I had been working on an academic research project involving Sansar. As members of the faculty union at my university, academic librarians have an opportunity and obligation to pursue research as part of their overall workload. Here’s a brief description of what I wanted to accomplish with my research project:

As my multi-year academic research project, I am creating a user-navigable, three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website (a guide to the mathematics literature for undergraduate and graduate students created by Dr. David Rusin) using Sansar as a software platform. I am doing this research in order to try and answer the following questions:

What hurdles do academic libraries face in providing access to a pre-existing reference/research tool in a virtual reality environment to students?

Are the software tools currently available (for example, those in Sansar) sufficient to build effective, efficient VR experiences for reference? If not, then what else is needed? This research project would be among the very first library and educational uses of the Sansar platform.

How will patrons use reference and research tools in VR? In the specific case of the Mathematical Atlas, will the use of a three-dimensional landscape model help users better grasp the various areas of modern mathematical research and how they relate to each other, as opposed to a traditional flat, two-dimensional webpage? Or will the 3-D model simply get in the way of imparting useful information?

“Wanted to accomplish” is in past tense because, I now realize, I have bitten off way more than I can chew, and tried to take on a research project that I simply cannot complete with the resources I have in any sort of timely fashion. I originally had this wonderful idea that I would create a three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website, and I would then test users to see how being able to navigate the information in 3D would impact users’ comprehension of the material.

My research project failed due to a number of factors, such as a lack of research time, and poor overall planning and project management. But the biggest problem was that I picked an area where I lacked the necessary in-depth subject knowledge. I have an undergraduate computer science degree and a Masters degree in library and information science, as well as several years of experience as the liaison librarian for the Department of Mathematics at my university. However, it quickly became obvious that a much greater in-depth knowledge of mathematics was required to effectively create the scenes or rooms representing the various areas of contemporary mathematics research that I had envisaged as part of this research project. As I said, I bit off more than I can chew. To give you an idea of how complex this topic is, here is the front-page “map” of the territory:

The front-page map of the Mathematical Atlas website, showing the relationship between the various research areas in contemporary mathematics research (position of the circles), and the amount of published research (size of the circles)

So what I am doing over the next six weeks is writing up an academic paper about my suspended research project, where I outline what I wanted to do and the lessons I learned in trying to get a project like this off the ground, in hopes that other researchers can learn something from my failure.

I still do believe that Sansar and other social VR platforms provide a “short cut” to building and publishing virtual reality experiences that can be very useful for educational and research purposes. For example, I just recently learned about a project at my university, the University of Manitoba, where Dr. Andrew Woolford and Dr. Adam Muller spent four years creating a virtual reality experience based on the testimonies of survivors of Canada’s Indian residential school system. The goal of the project was to shed light on a shameful chapter of Canadian history where indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools, where they lost their language and culture, and were often physically, mentally and sexually abused, all in the name of government-and-church-sanctioned assimilation into white settler culture:

I am curious about the technical aspects of this project, and I have reached out to the professors who did this work to learn more about it. This is the sort of thing that platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar would be a natural fit for. And I do believe that social VR platforms will play a key role in future educational and research projects. In fact, I still want to do research into applications of virtual reality and social VR to academic libraries. After I write (and hopefully publish) my paper, I will be sitting down to figure out my next research project.

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