Zero Gravity Lunar Library
Judi Alston and Andy Campbell
Immersive project inspires a new generation of readers and new ways of reading
One to One Development Trust is an award winning arts organisation based in Wakefield, UK, led by Judi Alston and Andy Campbell. One to One’s mission is to use digital technologies to engage communities in projects that push the boundaries of creativity.
As an organisation, we have a long history of creating imaginative projects using immersive technologies. In 2019, we heard that visual artist Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon was coming to Wakefield, where One to One has been based for many years. The Council were looking for innovative creative work for their event Festival of the Moon and we had a wave of ideas on how we could use Virtual Reality to create something unique, fun, and spectacular.
A lot of our work celebrates the relationship between past, present, and future, exploring a sense of place and identity. The Festival of the Moon marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, so what better place to start than looking at the local archives of what was happening in Wakefield in 1969.
A photograph of the mobile library van that toured the borough of Castleford in the District in the 1960’s really resonated with us, with its metallic tin can-like design, it echoed that of a space capsule.
We invited two senior managers from Wakefield Libraries to our studio to discuss our ideas. We suggested that we turn the historic library van into a moon-orbiting space shuttle filled with book recommendations, a gallery of photos of the area from 1969, and some short films we would make about people’s relationships with the Moon. It would ambitiously take the form of a Virtual Reality experience, include a trip to the Moon’s surface to ‘plant the flag for Wakefield’ and involve members from 12 local libraries.
The pitch prompted a momentary silence, followed by some excited laughter. The relief was tangible as Claire Pickering, Senior Librarian, exclaimed ‘Yes, I love it.’
We had just over three weeks to build and test the experience before its launch at the Festival of the Moon event. We accessed NASA’s free archive of imagery to help with visuals and created a series of experimental ‘sandbox’ environments in Unity, where books floated around inside an amusingly van-shaped space shuttle.
Readers from 12 libraries took part. They gave us their recommendations for a reading list themed around ‘what book would you take to the moon?’. These chosen books – rendered in 3D with their original front covers and readers’ group reviews on the back – drift around in zero gravity; using VR hand controllers, readers/players can ‘grab hold’ of the books, flip them over to read the short review, and then toss them back into the shuttle to float.
To give a sense of reward and progression, we decided to link the number of books/book reviews discovered to the opening of an ‘air lock’ at the bottom of the ship that offers a trip down to the Moon’s surface. With the project being developed for live events with potentially large audiences, we needed a mechanic that would time-limit the experience so that lots of people could take part on our relatively small number of VR headsets. So, we turned this element of the experience into a mission to ‘plant the Fleur de Lys flag’ (Wakefield’s iconic civic symbol we took from the gates of the Town Hall) before your oxygen runs out. After that, it would be ‘game over’.
To enrich the experience and make it attractive to a wide local audience, we created an ‘onboard gallery’ featuring historic local photographs and the short films we produced about different people’s relationships to the Moon. The films include stories from a Pagan, an astronomer, a spoken word artist, and a refugee.
We completed work on the project just in time for the event. We embarked on an intensive social media campaign focusing on the short films and their subjects and inviting new book suggestions for inclusion in the shuttle. We also featured screenshots as we developed Zero Gravity Lunar Library to document its progress and – as book reviews began to be submitted – highlighted different books of choice. We completed work on the project just in time for the event.
Throughout the Festival of the Moon, hundreds of people took part in the Zero Gravity Lunar Library at different events. For many, it was their first time experiencing Virtual Reality and the response was staggering. We were amazed at how long people were prepared to queue to have a go, and were particularly encouraged by the younger users who, on average, spent more time trying to catch all of the books in order to read the reviews.
We used a mix of Virtual Reality headsets, large touch screens, and digital projection to run all the components of the project, ensuring that it could be seen and heard from any position in Wakefield’s historic Old Market Hall where the Festival of the Moon was held.
Several people described the experience as ‘therapeutic’, saying that ‘being in space’, ‘floating around’ and ‘looking back at planet Earth from the Moon’ felt peaceful and relaxing. It provided a great framework to talk to audiences about reading, books, and technology – evoking excited responses from participants because they wanted to share their thoughts and reactions.
One of our main objectives was to surprise audiences with high production standards. Although the project’s core concept is entertaining, we wanted people to put on the headset and really feel like they were floating around inside a virtual library orbiting the Moon, playing on a sense of epic scale and freedom to explore. We developed realistic high-end graphics to add to the immersion, and this paid off in multiple ways. “This is fantastic, when’s it out for Xbox?” (or other gaming platforms) was a common response with some participants shocked that a small creative team had produced the project.
The positive feedback from the project and our own research and evaluation pinpointed that this was not the end of Zero Gravity Lunar Library.
Five months after we had submitted our internal project evaluation to the funders, Covid hit. The response had been overwhelmingly positive, the key take-away from the evaluation being ‘we need to develop this project further and do more with it.’ However, lockdown and a shift in priorities to respond to the needs of our local community prevailed, and the Zero Gravity Lunar Library was temporarily filed away.
Then, in 2022, Wakefield Council announced a call-out for projects to be included in Word Fest – Wakefield’s month-long literature festival running throughout May. It felt like a great opportunity to revisit Zero Gravity Lunar Library and build on user feedback, particularly the interest we’d had from children and young people in reading book reviews and wanting to contribute to their own. We were very pleased to be awarded funding to take the project into Phase 2.
There were key things we wanted to achieve in this phase: the first was to engage with young people aged 7+ in library settings who could help us road-test a new modified version of the project while also compiling and co-producing a new book list for young readers.
Secondly, we wanted to pilot the experience with a school aimed at key Stage 2 learning (7 to 11 years old). This would inform how we might develop an Education Resource Pack to sit alongside the project to explore its potential as a learning resource.
With a younger audience in mind, we decided to change the look and feel of the experience, brightening up the graphics and making the interactive elements deeper and more intuitive; we took out the film and photography exhibition and swapped it for some fun and quirky gravity experiments. We also embedded a live webcam feed from our gaming laptops into the space shuttle’s cockpit/dashboard, so that the children and young people could ‘see themselves’ (and anyone standing near them) wearing the VR headset as they explored the environment. This proved to be immensely fun and popular.
We ran six sessions in libraries across the Wakefield district. Around 100 children and young people took part. The response – again – was extremely positive, with librarians enthusiastically commenting that it seemed to resonate even with ‘reluctant readers’ (often noted as teenage boys, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds). Young people embraced the idea behind this version as an engagement resource to encourage reading. ‘I loved the VR because it made me look more into books,’ said one participant at South Elmsall Library, ‘I would recommend it for other young people because you can experience so much and learn new things.’
One of the factors that the children commented on was the quality of the graphics and overall production. We felt that this aspect of the project was an important part of ‘hooking in’ our young participants, most of whom regularly played video games and were used to a high level of visual quality and rich interaction; it was unlikely they’d fully engage in something that felt ‘below-par’ to what they were used to playing/experiencing at home. Additionally, as it had with the adult audiences at Festival of the Moon, it drew surprise at having been developed locally and by a small team. Several young people asked if they could come and do work placements with us, as the project felt to bring immersive production a step closer to within their reach as future creatives.
We used the experience to facilitate meaningful conversations with our cohorts about reading, games, books, and ideas for how they could integrate. After having explored the ship, discovered new books, and planted their flag on the Moon, many participants were keen and excited to find their own ‘recommended book’ within the virtual library, to write or speak a review of it to be included in the project.
Being part of the actual development process – and evolution of the concept – behind Zero Gravity Lunar Library held very strong appeal for many of our participants. Their parents were often similarly enthusiastic, with one parent at Pontefract library saying ‘I think this is a wonderful, interactive way of learning for children who learn better through experience rather than sitting at a desk. It’s so important we have options like this for our children.’
Running the project in libraries had its challenges however. Setting up tethered VR headsets/gaming laptops in varied public spaces sometimes proved awkward; a few libraries wanted the event to be pre-booked only, whilst in other libraries we ran (extremely busy) drop-in sessions. But in all instances, library staff made an effort to understand the concept, caught on to the excitement around it, and supported it by helping the young people find their book, or listened to their experiences of the project. A librarian at Wakefield Central Library said, ‘The use of new technology like this shows people that Libraries are moving with the times. They’re not the dark, dusty, and dated places that some people believe them to be. Participants on the day really enjoyed the opportunity they were offered and gave feedback like it was “excellent”, “the best day of my life”, “fantastic” and ”totally immersive”.’
This collaborative approach with Wakefield Libraries has enabled Zero Gravity Lunar Library to better reach its potential as a powerful promotional tool for reading and literacy. In Phase 2, we continued using the project to research the themes and gather evaluation from participants. This is hugely useful in our practice as creative producers and informs how we move forward.
We were delighted to pilot Zero Gravity Lunar Library with twenty six Year 6 pupils at Mackie Hill Junior and Infant School in Wakefield, with the support of the Head Teacher, the class teacher, and a teaching assistant. The experience of delivering the project in a school setting was useful, as it helped inform our ideas for an Education Resource Pack. It also gave us the opportunity to talk to pupils and staff about literacy in schools and how they are currently using (or not using) technology in the classroom.
We also engaged families who are home-educating and ran a specific session for homeschoolers. These families appreciated the recommended reading lists offered by the project.
Zero Gravity Lunar Library has proven its worth through extensive road-testing and research. We are now ready to seek out opportunities for Phase 3 of the project to explore the potential of disseminating the VR experience – and a new forthcoming web-browser version – to schools alongside an Education Resource Pack as a conduit for class-based learning across 3 main areas of national curriculum: English (including Creative Writing), Maths, and Science.
Zero Gravity Lunar Library is an important project for us as creatives. It has given us the artistic freedom to explore new ideas, push boundaries and use technology in a fun and innovative way. Without arts development funding this project would not have been possible. It has also given us the opportunity to create a project which we hope will go into further development phases, inform debates and discussion on non-traditional ways to read, the future of digital technology in education, and explore new ways to encourage literacy.
For more information about the project and to access the downloadable and browser-based versions when they are released later this year, please visit zerogravitylunarlibrary.co.uk
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