'The Library at Night' - VR Review

"The Library at Night" is a (mostly) virtual installation by Robert Lepage inspired by Alberto Manguel's book of the same name. It's currently playing at One Yonge Street in Toronto.

When you first enter (along with ten or fifteen other people), you're ushered into a room made to look like someone's single-room library. Narration by Lepage points you to various objects around the room, including books from his own library that show how personally significant books can be without necessarily being of financial value. This lasts about ten minutes, after which the group is moved into another another room.

The second room has library tables in a "forest" (tree trunks reaching from floor to ceiling, and forest art on the walls). There you're seated in swivel chairs (a wise move as you end up twisting about a lot) and put in VR headsets. You choose the order of the ten libraries you visit inside your headset ... although you're given only a symbol to choose with no explanation of what library it is until you "enter." I got Ottawa's Parliamentary Library first, and it was a bit heavy-handed with birds popping out of the huge Audubon book that Lepage made the centrepiece of that library.

Other libraries include the Library of Congress, the library on Nemo's submarine (the only fictional one), the Sarajevo City Hall and National Library (destroyed in 1992 during the Siege of Sarajevo), the Library of Alexandria (destroyed by fire thousands of years ago), etc. Most memorable to me was Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City, with a massive whale skeleton hanging over the lobby. This process takes about 45 minutes (although the time varies slightly depending on what you do inside your own headset).

Lepage's well-intended narration of each library is both ponderous and pedantic. This VR exhibit has been doing the rounds since at least 2016, which makes it ... about a century old in technological terms. Although the truth is that while VR has advanced in that time, it hasn't really addressed the things I'm now going to complain about. I kept looking at things and trying to focus on them, to see more detail: but you can't, because you're limited by the resolution of the headset. And if you look down, you find you have no body - and your point of view is roughly 2.5 metres off the floor. I don't know about you, but I ain't that tall - and it's disconcerting to find yourself hovering so high in the air without a body. The last detail isn't a complaint, just an observation: the 2016 review I saw mentioned the Oculus Rift headset, but the display is now run on a standard cellphone (Samsung I think) in a headset-phone adapter.

It was pretty, and nice to look at these various lovely libraries. But this effort made it more clear than any experience I've had how immature VR is as a technology. I've played some fun games in VR (notably the wildly entertaining Superhot) but they didn't try to pretend to be reality. Lepage's attempt to transport you to realistic interpretations of various libraries only highlighted how VR is currently struggling through its own Uncanny Valley, which in turn made the display feel like it was more about the technology than anything else. The price tag is steep, and the resulting experience is both interesting and unsatisfactory.