This is our new reality


This blog is going to be peppered with jargon, so I thought I’d start by explaining what I mean.

Perhaps the most prevalent bit of technospeak being used in the cultural sector at the moment is “Augmented Reality” and “Virtual Reality” (AR/VR).

Augmented Reality

There are lots of ways of thinking about Augmented Reality – and not all of them are helpful in designing engaging and relevant services. So I thought I’d go back to the (online) Oxford dictionary.

Augmented (adjective): 1.Having been made greater in size or value

Reality – well I’m not sure anyone has ever really got to the bottom of what that is and the OED doesn’t clarify things much if you’re feeling philosophical. But I’d say that in this instance what we’re talking about is your experience through your original five senses. This is only going to get more complex as new devices and applications come on the market and become ubiquitous filters for ‘reality’, but we can start with that.

So augmented reality is something that makes your lived experience of the world greater in size or adds value to it.

Mainly these days that is understood in a visual sense – overlaying digital images or animations onto ‘reality’ via applications on your smart devices. This could be a smart phone or a tablet and soon will include the range of wearable technologies (glasses, watches etc) that are coming onto the market. A really good example of this is the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum App.

However, it can apply to sounds and data as well. An example of this is the Courtauld’s Beyond the Label app, which provides background information about the collection to viewers in the gallery and then also for reference at home.

There is a very erudite description of Augmented Reality and its application in the British Museum here which helps you understand the technical aspects of it and also, crucially, how these experiences are anchored in ‘reality’ through the use of visual markers to trigger the content.

In the future we can expect to see encyclopedias where the content ‘comes to life’ on the digital or real page once the visual marker is triggered by a smart device – such as T-Rexes roaring at you or volcanoes exploding. Or multi-layered texts where the author invites people to respond to their work and these responses are accessible via smart devices while reading the original.

How can I have a go?


Excitingly enough, there is a really good opportunity for libraries to get involved in playing with Augmented Reality this summer via the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge which has an AR app triggered by posters that you put up around the library.

Children can download the app and go on an AR treasure hunt where the characters on the poster come to life on their smart devices. It’s really worth building this into your summer reading offer this year as a toe in the water because it’s free for those signing up to the Summer Reading Challenge. Check out the app here:

Virtual Reality

Typically, Virtual Reality is much more immersive than Augmented Reality and tends to be more influenced by gaming culture.

These days you would tend to put on a headset, such as Oculus Rift, and experience an immersive virtual environment.

Gateshead libraries have partnered with local tech companies and universities to provide free access to Oculus Rift headsets for library users in special workshops targeted at young people.

However, advances in projection technologies and movement sensors mean the boundaries between AR and VR will probably be coming down over the next 10-20 years. Although, for the moment, this will be confined to specific environments (such as rooms or gallery spaces), you will be able to literally ‘be’ in a virtual reality space.

Again, (as we all seem to want to go back to Prehistoric times via these futuristic technologies), I’ll use the example of dinosaurs – you’ll be able to ‘walk with the dinosaurs’ – seeing three dimensional projections all around you as you walk through the Natural History Museum.

Any issues?

One big gap in this work in the cultural sector is any systematic assessment of whether these cool things do actually ‘augment’ people’s reality.

It would be good to get people together who are doing these things and see if we could evaluate whether people used them, how they used them and what they liked about them.


I think we could create a real niche for public libraries in providing access to things like AR and VR without extensively productising it – providing a beta test experience for people where they are encouraged to play, wonder and get involved in shaping the future of these kinds of applications.

Libraries should also be a place for debate – what do these new ideas and technologies mean for our society? What will change? What will stay the same? What do we all want our new reality to be?

(Header image: Orlovsky and Oculus Rift, Sergey Galyonkin)


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