Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, MP for Slough, trying Doctor Who

Over the last few months, the BBC – with huge support from librarians – has brought some of BBC VR Hub’s best virtual reality experiences to new audiences in over 150 libraries.

By Zillah Watson and Dinah Lammiman, BBC VR Hub

BBC research has shown that viewers find virtual reality experiences uniquely memorable.  Yet VR has still to find its place in the home entertainment market.  Much like early TV and radio, for now, there’s no habit amongst our audiences for viewing VR at home.

VR is, however, already firmly establishing itself in the professional sector – offering corporate opportunities for training, change management and production amongst many other uses.  Along with hardcore VR gaming, this market looks like it’s here to stay.

Location-based VR is the future – for now

The other area of growth in VR so far is in location-based experiences. In VR arcades, museums, art installations, people are more than happy to strap on a headset and immerse themselves in quality VR experiences, and to pay for the privilege. Examples include ‘The Antarctica Experience’ which began life at the Museum of Western Australia, and has moved to Australia’s National Museum for paying audiences, or something like ‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ which had its run extended at the Saatchi Gallery twice.

But most location-based activity is in highly populated areas, rarely reaching smaller or more remote areas.

For the BBC, location-based experiences need to sit comfortably with the BBC’s public service goals.  The BBC VR Hub wanted to show its latest VR in locations with shared public values that cater to people the BBC might not otherwise reach.  Locations spread across a huge geographical area with the space, staff and commitment to run multiple VR events.  It was a tall ask.

UK public libraries score high on all these metrics.  They’re an ideal low-cost opportunity for audiences to engage with BBC VR, and for the BBC to learn about its impact.

After a successful small trial, working with a group of BBC departments (BBC Rewind (NI), BBC Nations & Regions, BBC Marketing & Audiences) with the help of Libraries Connected, the BBC VR Hub set up a series of library VR pop-ups to run over three months across the widest selection of libraries we could manage.

“We’ll be following this up by looking at the results of the online survey visitors to the libraries were asked to complete, which was designed by colleagues in BBC Marketing and Audiences, so that we can learn more about reactions to VR, how the audience interacts with it and whether there’s an appetite for VR –  BBC VR in particular,” Dinah explains.

When the BBC first set out on this journey, we were aiming to put pop-ups in around 20-30 libraries. But the tour rapidly grew as librarians pushed VR out to as many of their branches as they could.  As of July 2019, BBC VR has popped-up in 156 libraries.

It’s been amazing to see this growth, and even more amazing that it’s all happened organically.  It started through contact with individual librarians facilitated by Libraries Connected.  As it’s taken hold, more libraries have heard about the tour and come on board.  Coupling high quality BBC VR with the library set-up has enabled the BBC to reach deep into communities all across the country, engaging new audiences in a huge spread of libraries to give them an extraordinary experience.

The model is simple.  The BBC loans a handful of headsets to a library (a few have their own), licenses some content and supplies a pack of marketing materials, short training videos and the phone numbers for our team so we can troubleshoot on the hoof.  The librarians run the pop-ups and when they’re done they send headsets on to the next location on the tour.

Season 1 began in April 2019 and featured Congo VR, season 2 was Doctor Who: The Runaway and 1943 Berlin Blitz for season 3.  Once each season is done the headsets return to the start location and the next season begins.

The logistics have mostly worked smoothly but there have been a few challenges.

  • Organisationally it’s a mammoth task. (Lurking on VR Hub desktops is a migraine-inducing coloured grid tracking the headsets’ movements around the country)
  • The tech is new and new tech has plenty of glitches
  • Sometimes the route planning has gone a little awry or the turnaround has been very tight

Despite this, throughout, the can-do attitude and commitment of the network of library staff has made this project work.

And it really has worked.  The feedback has been incredible.

“Amazing experience, surreal, impactful and has the potential to change the way we learn about the world.” visitor to Redbridge library

“[Visitors] talked to me about feeling much more empathy than watching a ‘normal’ film.” Redbridge librarian

Participants are really enjoying BBC VR.  So far, a staggering 96% of those who filled in the online survey found it enjoyable, 91% immersive and 93% original.

“Loved it! Would definitely do it again. Like being in a whole new world. Felt like being in someone else’s shoes. Really cool!” visitor to Motherwell library

“Like wearing an invisibility cloak, amazing you can see right round.” visitor to Guildford library

“That was very moving, very emotional- the short length means it hits home very hard.”  visitor to Newport Library, after watching 1943 Berlin Blitz

“I went to Africa without a visa” visitor to Skelmersdale library

The BBC’s interim results show that people who visited its VR pop-ups in the libraries are three times more likely to recommend it to a friend or family member than any other out-of-home experience.  92% said they would talk about it with other people.  The social media amplification has been huge.  The tour has featured in around 600 tweets, reaching nearly 800 000 users.

BBC content plus libraries is a winning combination

Great content in an un-intimidating, safe, familiar environment with attentive helpers has been a huge draw.  With the gentle, guiding hand of librarians, we’ve been able to encourage those who would not normally have tried VR to give it a go. For over half of our library VR users, this was their first chance to try VR.

We know that people don’t get how great VR can be until they try it.  Persuading audiences to take that first step and put on a headset has been the big challenge for VR makers. Library VR experiences may be helping to break down this barrier.  Even those who are otherwise hard to reach, have engaged with VR.

“… the man is someone who is very hard to engage with … this certainly did, or rather the gorillas certainly did.” – visitor to Motherwell Librarian

And librarians are getting a lot out of the tour too. Some of these services have been hard pressed in recent years – and this has given them the chance to reaffirm and strengthen their community role around high-quality content.  It’s also been a highly visible way for libraries to demonstrate their developing digital skills and expertise.

“…being given access to the BBC VR …has been life changing!  So useful’. Community Participation Officer, Cambridgeshire libraries

“Thank you on behalf of the residents of Aberdeenshire for producing this content and organising this project… On more than one occasion I had a participant say to me “I can’t believe that I am able to take part in this in my local library”.  They were thrilled that they were able to access such high quality content without having to travel a huge distance which is quite normal in Aberdeenshire.” Aberdeenshire librarian

“People thought it was a fantastic thing to have access to in their local library, and suggested it might be something we could offer all the time, and that libraries are a great place for people to try new technologies.” – Leyland librarian

“We really enjoyed the experience of having the VR headsets. It was a very different experience for our customers to take part in and one that they seemed to really enjoy. Several have asked if we will have a similar chance again in the future.” Longridge librarian

VR is acting as a springboard for learning.  After seeing Congo VR 83% of viewers wanted to learn more about the subject.

And people want more.  85% of people said they would go to more BBC VR events.  Those who visited BBC VR library pop-up events were three times more likely to try VR again compared with those who’ve tried other out of home VR experiences.

“One 89 year old lady had never used a computer I don’t think but she really connected with the piece. She loved it!  It was incredibly moving for many, eliciting a really powerful emotional response.” Oldham librarian

“It was a fantastic experience and our customers (and staff) really embraced it. The lady who removed the headset sobbing and said what an incredibly moving experience it had been will stick with me for a long time.” Salisbury librarian

“We had a local service who provides day provision for adults with learning disabilities come along with 6 adults and 2 support workers. The group really enjoyed it and there was lots of positive feedback, the support workers thought it was a great opportunity for their group to experience something different they wouldn’t normally have chance to.” Nottingham librarian

This has been a timely project.  When the BBC is facing criticism and libraries have constant challenges, both have driven it forward – as equal partners.

The BBC has a history of democratising new technology, opening up opportunities for many.  The BBC Micro played a key role in the home computer boom in the early 80s.  Few other organisations have the potential to offer opportunities for people to experience new forms of media on such a wide scale.  And radical new media like virtual reality needs that kind of boost.

It’s not over yet

The pilot ends at the end of July 2019 and libraries are still joining the scheme.  Across the country there’s a tangible wave of energy, excitement and expectation.  We’ve offered three seasons and librarians are asking what’s season 4?  There’s a real opportunity to build from this fabulously successful, organic project and reach many communities, particularly those for whom new technology or immersive installations are hard to access.

Find out more about the BBC VR Library tour, including upcoming dates