Bridgewater to Paris: virtually free

by Peter Josephson

How would you like to take a trip to Paris this afternoon?

And just before you go would you also like a tour of the Grand Canyon?

Then, when you return from these adventures you could take a journey in a human cell to learn how all the parts of your body function.

This is all possible-or at least virtually possible-at branches of South Shore Libraries and it's free. All you have to do is slip on a headset and off you go. The headset is tethered to a computer that plays the programs you choose.

This virtual reality system is no toy. The three dimensional detail is incredible. As you turn your head what you see changes. Take a step forward and you're closer to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Eric Pottie, Emerging Opportunities Librarian, said that everyone is amazed at how realistic the programs are. "Pretty much everyone is shocked by the level of detail and how it takes up the whole field of vision, so we hear a lot of 'oh wows.'"

There is one $1,200 headset, paid for by the Library Programming Fund, at each of the three branches of the South Shore Libraries:. Lunenburg, Bridgewater, and Liverpool. The South Shore Libraries already owned the computers that drive the software.

The virtual reality programs are divided into three categories: education and discovery, art, and games.

Taken together the overall purpose of these programs is to introduce people to an emerging technology, the technology of the future. "It's a giant step in the digital revolution." Mr. Pottie said.

"Our program team felt that VR technology has the potential to have a profound effect on society in the future and we wanted to expose people to the technology first hand. It will most certainly be an integral part of education in the future."

Many of the educational programs draw on Google Earth and allow you to go "anywhere on Earth." Fly to Africa. Explore the Antarctic. Visit Easter Island's giant sculptures.

Some of the art programs take participants on tours of museums around the world and discuss the work of well-known artists. Other art programs are interactive and allow people to make their own art in a virtual world.

Other programs are just plain fun, designed to familiarize children and adults with this exciting technology. The virtual reality takes digital games to a new level. "Players are part of the game. They are in the world of the game, rather than outside looking in," Mr. Pottie said. "The games are exciting, but they are not violence based."

Perhaps one of the most exciting programs is a ride on a roller coaster. The ride is so realistic that children are asked to sit in chairs when they're experiencing it.

The virtual reality headsets and software have been available to the public since last October.

'"We purchased the headsets last August, but it took some time for the staff fully understand how the system works," Mr. Pottie said.

If you are interested, you can buckle up your seatbelt on the roller coaster at any of the three branches of the South Shore Libraries: Lunenburg, Bridgewater, and Liverpool. And after you wobble off the rollercoaster you can relax on a beach on the French Riviera. Virtually.

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