Books to Bytes: ERDC Library Goes Fully Virtual

A new effort will transform the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) Library by adding an unexpected capability: virtual reality. A team at the ERDC Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) is working to create a fully-immersive, interactive experience that is as realistic as physically walking into the Mississippi-based library with an ultimate goal of enhancing information and data discovery for team members around the world.

“This will be the first fully virtual library in the Department of Defense,” said Jennefer Beyl, an ERDC librarian and lead project coordinator. “No other agency or commercial company currently has an available, working system connecting novel user interfaces and large, linked data sources on the web.”

Capabilities developed within the ERDC Library will be translated to applications and operations on a large scale, allowing immediate access to necessary data and information resources. Improved context of library materials in the field can increase productivity, knowledge and innovation. The effort also represents a critical step toward creating and standardizing live, interactive digital twins (digital replicas of physical assets, people, places, systems and devices).

“This process allows users to access all of an entity’s informational resources and provides the ability to interact and use information in new ways,”  said Beyl. “For example, right now you can go into the library and access physical books but not digitally-born objects like datasets or online journal articles. What we are aiming to create is a digital setting where you can use and interact with all of those items simultaneously, while also exchanging ideas and interacting with one another.”

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The digital setting will allow anyone with access to enter a shared environment, removing a barrier to collaboration. Additionally, by incorporating virtual maker spaces, researchers will be able to use tools like whiteboards to exchange ideas and brainstorm while accessing ERDC’s diverse set of resources. The project is ongoing, and a true-scale building information modeling (BIM) model has already been created for the library.

“The model has been fully integrated with the Virtual Reality Unreal Engine application, and the library’s interior features have been incorporated,” said Jeremy Herring, a research mechanical engineer. “Users are able to navigate the space and even move the rotating bookshelves within the library. The interface has been developed to search the Knowledge Core database and query resources, and materials and layouts have been created to mirror their physical counterparts.”

Planned additions include a networking application and the creation of an animated, digital librarian. When the project is complete, data for the virtual and augmented reality-based mobile systems will be gathered from online sources using a bibliographic framework format, such as the Library of Congress Bibliographic Framework. Use of the framework is expected to allow the results of this project to be duplicated for other libraries and be applied to solve the problem of where and how to more effectively host large data sets.

“The final application will be accessible by all ERDC employees, including those who do not have access to a physical ERDC library site,” said Herring. “Interconnected, immersive data sets allow for the exploration of problem and solution spaces that would be very difficult or not possible otherwise. This will give researchers multiple ways to collaborate and work together, which would have been a game changer during the recent pandemic.”

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2023.

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