Demystifying the metaverse: What academic librarians need to know
February 8, 2023
By Marilynn Larkin
Exploring the metaverse can yield new tools for research, communication, and collaboration
A medical librarian in Puerto Rico creates a compelling simulation to elicit empathy and understanding on Rare Disease Day… a math teacher drops a million cubes in a classroom to make a point in a lesson… individuals with low vision and hearing loss visit a simulated island where they can see and experience everything in the environment, thanks to special navigation tools.
These are just a few examples of the many things people can do in the metaverse that can’t be done in the physical world, which is part of what makes working in the metaverse so appealing, says Valerie Hill, PhD, Director of the Seattle, Washington-based Community Virtual Library (CVL).
While there is no universally accepted definition of metaverse, which Euromonitor (opens in new tab/window)recently placed among the top-10 consumer trends, Hill has her own: “The metaverse is a decentralized collection of computer-generated virtual environments where individuals interact in a persistent space through embodiment as an avatar. Just as there are many planets in the universe, there can be many worlds in the metaverse. But again, each is a persistent place.”
“Furthermore, if you are not embodied in an avatar, you're simply online,” Hill notes. “It’s like when you see people on a bus scrolling on their phones. They’re elsewhere; they're not present in the bus. In the metaverse, where you're embodied in an avatar, you’re there mentally and emotionally.”
Bethany Winslow(opens in new tab/window), Director of Online Learning at San Josė State University’s School of Information in California, adds, “It is also important to realize that the metaverse is composed of persistent virtual locations that are both social in nature and that you must actively navigate. That means 3D environments. Standalone VR experiences – when you are alone in a simulation that is not a shared space and there is no interaction with others -- are not part of the metaverse, even though some of that technology is contributing to the development of the metaverse. The metaverse is distinctly social in nature.”
Why get involved?
In a slide show(opens in new tab/window) that accompanied a live webinar, Information Services Librarian, Assistant Professor and Manager of the Innovation Lab at St. Petersburg College, Florida, Chad Mairn(opens in new tab/window) explores the reasons that librarians should consider getting involved in the metaverse right now. From a research perspective, he notes, users can “step into data,” participate in 3D tours of areas of interest such as science labs, and experience the potential of virtual/augmented reality meeting platforms, such as Spatial(opens in new tab/window), which enable collaborations in a 3D virtual environment from anywhere on earth.
Citing data from XR Today(opens in new tab/window), Mairn points to the growth of metaverse technology (virtual reality and augmented reality) in various industries: Outside of gaming, the sectors anticipated to experience the most growth in VR and AR are healthcare (38%), education (28%), workforce development (24%), manufacturing (21%), automotive (19%), marketing (16%), logistics (16%), retail (15%), and military (13%).
Furthermore, he notes, 77% of people who already use VR say they want to have more social engagement. This highlights the growing benefits of VR for communication and collaboration.
Given the broad-based interest, it’s important for librarians to have a specific purpose and goals to help them focus, and to present themselves in a consistent way on a given platform, Hill says. “I entered the metaverse in Second Life(opens in new tab/window) as a virtual world librarian, and I don’t go there for any other purpose, even though I certainly could. In fact, my vocation is part of my avatar name: Valibrarian, Of course, when I’m working there, I’m actually sitting at my desktop computer like I do with Zoom, but with many more opportunities to connect with people and participate in events together.”
Winslow adds, “The metaverse is a digital community of people interacting in 3D spaces. So for research, that means you may have access to individuals and ideas that you wouldn't otherwise have access to. Also, it's worth noting that when I want to talk with my other virtual world colleagues, we don't meet in Zoom. We meet ‘in-world,’ primarily because it's a rich environment that makes being together more interesting and fun.”
The metaverse is accessible via headsets, smartphones, and desktop, laptop or notebook computers, depending on the platform you’re on. Not all platforms are accessible to all devices. For example, Second Life is not accessible on a VR headset or a phone. However, it’s important to have a screen to view the metaverse, as compared to chat apps, which are not very immersive, Hill says.
“Navigating in one world is not going to work exactly the same way as in another platform,” says Winslow. “But most of us have found when you learn to work in more than one environment, you start seeing the similarities and it gets easier and easier.”.
Communication with others is facilitated by the features of the particular metaverse platform. As with Zoom, Hill notes, you can talk with a whole group of people or interact one-on-one, but the options are variable across platforms. But while Zoom is a “window” and a camera, she says, the metaverse is a shared “place.“
“The first thing you’ll need to do is spend some time learning how to use the navigation tools, and you may want to make the CVL one of your first destinations in Second Life, which has been its home for many years,” Hill advises.
The library helps newcomers learn how to get around in the metaverse and find other people that share their interests, both business and personal. Metaverse mentors, subject experts and a database of relevant books and other media are also available. “Our CVL has been helping newcomers for 15 years and is now supporting the Virtual Worlds Education Consortium(opens in new tab/window) (VWEC) to help people understand metaverse best practices and learn to match the technology tool with the job at hand.”
“Just get started, somewhere, anywhere!” Winslow says. “Meet and talk to friendly people. Learn something new and be willing to stumble at it. Getting out of our comfort zone is an essential skill for all lifelong learners, not just our students. If we want to work at the cutting edge of any technology, if we want people to see libraries as more than just a place where you get books, if we are to overcome our own limitations, we have to start with our own mindsets.
“I encourage people to adopt the playful mindset of the tinkerer - keywords being ‘playful’ and ‘tinker.’ If you have zero familiarity with socializing online and cultivating meaningful professional and personal relationships, then you're missing out on some fundamental training of what the ‘metaverse’ is and will continue to be.”
Winslow also recommends reading the seminal sci-fi/cyberpunk novels about the metaverse, and paying attention to the popular media around virtual world culture. “Observations by writers like William Gibson(opens in new tab/window) and Neal Stephenson(opens in new tab/window), and others, are important reference points.”
Here, to get you started, are a few selected links from the many Metaverse articles and resources available on the web.
There are so many potential destinations and events on even a single metaverse platform – and Winslow and Hill suggest becoming familiar with more than one – that it can feel impossible to know where to start.
“It goes back to the idea of having a clear purpose,” says Hill. “Otherwise, you can get caught up in what Bethany and I call the ‘wow’ factor – ‘Oh, wow! This is so cool.’ At first, people are blown away with what they see when they come into these environments. But if you’re here to work, you need to be a librarian. What are people looking for? What simulations can you do that are purposeful?”
The CVL and the VWEC can help with the nuts and bolts of setting up simulations and other experiences that would be relevant to specific types of research, Hill says – for example, historical simulations of time periods of your choosing, or disaster simulations that allow you to ride into a fire with the ambulance team.
In addition, it’s important to join or set up a professional learning network of peers who can support each other and learn from each other’s discoveries. “I had to learn the metaverse on my own time, in the background, while I was a school librarian, and then as a professor of library science,” recalls Hill. “But it’s easier and actually critical to work with the university behind you, supporting you and your colleagues as you learn the necessary skills, and then providing opportunities to bring those skills into the institution’s library and classrooms.”
“Librarians have known since the dawn of the Internet that books in print are not at the top of the information hierarchy,” Hill says. “XR (multiple realities) are rapidly developing and I envision librarians helping students and faculty find materials in all formats and all realities.”
The CVL has been working on a virtual world database to help people find accurate and aesthetically pleasing simulations for subjects including math, science, art, history, music, and literature. “In addition,” says Hill, “we have a directory of people in the VWEC because their avatars are subject experts! Librarians have been adopting new technology and new media formats throughout the history of librarianship. It is only natural and logical that librarians will be organizing media in the metaverse.”
The VWEC’s next goal is to develop a professional package to share with universities. “We want everyone to be on the same page,” says Hill. “Anyone can join the consortium, which is made up of volunteers, and collaborate with us.”
Citing metaverse expert Ryan Schultz(opens in new tab/window), Winslow points to the exponential growth in platforms for creating and interacting in the metaverse. “Some people might think they'll just wait for a dominant platform to invest their time in, but I don't think that a good strategy. Not only is a single platform unlikely to emerge as the one, I worry that anyone who doesn't explore using 3D virtual environments sooner than later might get left out entirely. People with zero experience will be ill-equipped to contribute to conversations about the value of libraries in the metaverse or the value of accessing the metaverse from within the library.
“A few years ago, I was the tech support person in a room with 20 undergrad students, most of whom had never been in Second Life. I watched them create accounts, and within about 15 minutes, most weren't having any trouble at all. I watched them running around in-world, changing their clothes, flying, teleporting to different locations, and engaged in private conversations with each other. So I would tell librarians who are hesitant to get involved with the metaverse to watch what people are doing right now in social 3D and gaming environments, because ready or not, they are leading the way!”