Ukiah Library offers a world of virtual reality free to patrons

In 2011, 18-year-old Palmer Luckey, working in his parents’ garage, hacked together the first rough prototype of what was to become the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-mounted display. He went on to become the founder of Oculus VR, a division of Facebook, Inc., and, no surprise, is now one of the richest entrepreneurs in America.

The Rift’s device, more effective and less expensive than what had previously been on the market for gamers, was developed and funded through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and released to the public in the spring of 2016.

The headset’s goggles have embedded sensors that monitor the wearer’s head motions and adjust the image accordingly using an external positional-tracking sensor, which helps track head movements more accurately.

Luckey follows in the footsteps of earlier inventors such as Morton Heilig, who developed Sensorama and a head-mounted display device called the Telesphere Mask.

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland developed another head-mounted device called the Ultimate Display and in the ’70s and ’80s optical advances ran parallel with projects that worked on haptic devices, the science of applying tactile sensation to human interaction with computers.

Thanks to former Ukiah branch librarian Anne Shirako and librarian technician Lily Rojo, who worked to attain the VR funding through a California Library Grant, the Ukiah Library now offers, free to the public, the use of this incredible visual experience.

By strapping on a headset called the Oculus Rift, and with handheld navigational devices, the user can visit the British Museum in London, hike Mount Everest or spend time attempting to maneuver through the Space Station.

In the back room at the library, eighth-grader Kai Nunnemaker is encased in the headset and, with a controller in each hand, is battling droids in Echo Chamber, a sort-of Ultimate Frisbee/Quidditch game.

Projected onto a large computer screen is the action in which he is engaged, allowing viewers to see what he is encountering virtually. Totally immersed, twisting and gyrating, knocking out opponents, calling out to his teammates, jumping up and doing 180s, it’s more entertaining to watch him than to view what is happening on the screen.

This is a multi-player game, two teams, with robots competing and flying around an arena in zero gravity trying to get a disc through a hoop. The other players are live players, from near or far, represented by robots playing in real time, somewhat akin to the virtual games in the book “Ready Player One.”


He navigates with virtual thrusters on his arms, punching out at opponents, reaching for the disc, maneuvering his wrists, grabbing onto teammates and communicating verbally. It’s a kind of dance, a unique and highly entertaining freestyle choreography.

Echo Chamber is only one of dozens of games, art and experiences, varying in length, which are available to the public, and an Open Virtual Reality Day is also planned for Saturday, Feb. 24 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Users must sign a waiver, be at least 13 years old, read and understand the health and safety advisory bulletin covering motion sickness, impaired balance and serious medical conditions. If the user is 18 or older he or she must possess a library card and if 13-17 must have a parent or guardian sign.

Call 707-463-4490 for more information or for a reservation.

For dates in March and April go to:

Aircare allows you to engage in a Blade Runner-Esque experience, flying futuristically through a city; Apollo 11 takes you on the mission to the moon where the user experiences being an astronaut and views documentary footage from real astronauts with their actual voices; Blocks is a virtual world that allows for artistic expression starting with a blank slate and building whatever suits the fancy: grass, snow, buildings, etc.

The Blu: Season 1 is an underwater experience where the user swims along with jellyfish and whales and goes deep into the ocean with a flashlight to see what is down there.

The Body starts off in a tiny flying pod, allowing the user to take a trip through veins and arteries and actually see blood cells. It is accompanied by an informative narrative.

The Climb, a very popular experience, takes the user on a mountain climb turning the hand devices into mittens, being able to physically use them to move up the mountain and to shake them to distribute chalk for a good grip.

“If you are working too hard, your body function levels are going down, you start to see sweat on your goggles and your vision gets blurry,” says Rojo. “If you fall, you hear yourself screaming and see yourself falling. I only made it through the tutorial on that one. It was too scary for me.”

I decided to put on the headset for Everest, an educational version of The Climb. Prior to embarking on the expedition, I signed the Release, Hold Harmless and Agreement Not To Sue waiver and waited while Kai and Lily cleaned the helmet and put in a fresh face pad.

For better grounding I decided to sit and was offered a wheeled chair with 360-degree capability. The helmet was put on my head, snugged at the top and at the sides with earphones put in place and the controllers placed in my hands. After the program loaded, I found myself flying with a couple of crows over Everest’s base camp while the narrator explained the Puja offering altar created for blessings on the climb.

With the press of a button or two, aided by Kai (way too many buttons for a non-gamer), I was transported down to base camp, where I was able to use my “mittens” to grab and actually drop things. A few more button pushes and I was on my way up.

Arriving at the very apex, with flags waving in the breeze, I placed my own flag in the icy pinnacle. I was at the top of Mount Everest, looking down and around, at an endless range of snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, with a 360-degree view—definitely a sensation of presence.

Kai, one of a corps of teen volunteers who trained last summer to help people use the controls, spends time with the Oculus Rift whenever he can. “You can get really immersed in these games; it seems like some of them are meant as escapes from reality while others are realistic,” he says.

He likes to play Robo Recall, a very realistic game that puts you into a world where robots have malfunctioned and are attacking the human population. “Your job as a robot is to eliminate the defective robots; the weaponry makes it feel like you are in a different age; it’s very futuristic,” he says.

I wanted to try something with no danger but a bit more challenging, realistic and interactive. I decided on Mission ISS and put the headset back on and was handed the hand devices. I started with the tutorial, instructed on how to move in different directions using the buttons (way too many of them) and there I was floating through the Space Station, bumping into the sides, unable to navigate properly. After two minutes, I closed my eyes and asked for the headset to be removed. So much for virtual reality.

There’s a black binder filled with dozens of virtual experiences and at the very end, under the mature category, is the experience called Face Your Fears. During its tutorial, Lily found herself in an elevator and decided she had had enough. I asked a couple of the teens if they would put on the headset so I could see what it looked like on the screen. No one volunteered; too scary, they said.

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