Virtually, a sneak peek at Elkridge library's coming attraction

Interior view of the new Elkridge branch library, as seen via a virtual tour created by the project's architectural firm, Grimm and Parker.
Interior view of the new Elkridge branch library, as seen via a virtual tour created by the project's architectural firm, Grimm and Parker. (Grimm and Parker Architects)

For diehard video gamers, the basic technology isn’t new.

But for Howard County library patrons of all ages, goggles that allow them to take a virtual reality tour of the new Elkridge branch library currently under construction are proving to be a big draw.


When patrons visiting the Savage and Central library branches last week got the opportunity from afar to explore the 35,000-square-foot library — which will be more than double the size of the former 17,000-square-foot building when it opens in mid-March — they leapt at the chance.

Two more 90-minute virtual tours are scheduled at the Glenwood and Miller branches Monday, at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. respectively.


“The technology is very cool,” said Angela Brade, the library’s chief operating officer for support services and project manager for the Elkridge branch capital project. “Some of us [on the library staff] already had the chance to try it out and it’s awesome.”

Using a 3D modeling platform with a new architectural real-time rendering software component, the goggles permit users to “walk” through the new Elkridge branch – turning their heads one way to glimpse a new reading room or another way to view the new Do-It-Yourself Education Center, which will be the only amenity of its type in the county’s six-library network.

“This [add-on] just became available to the architecture industry about 18 months ago, and it has opened up a new era,” said Antonio Rebelo, design director at Grimm and Parker Architects, the Prince George’s County firm that designed the $29 million facility and past library projects.

“It’s not a game, but an actual projection of a VR model under construction,” said Rebelo, who gave the public presentations on Nov. 6. “It meshes the computer and entertainment worlds with the corporate world.”


Rebelo emphasized that 3D architectural modeling itself isn’t new, and has been around for 15 to 20 years.

“It’s the way a person views the building that’s new,” he said.

The Elkridge project will be called the Charles I. Ecker Campus after the former Howard County executive who served from 1990 to 1998. The new facility will also house a new 10,000-square-foot senior center that is connected to the 35,000-square-foot library but has its own entrance.

While only one pair of goggles is available for use during the virtual tour sessions, what each individual user “sees” will be projected from a laptop onto a screen for others to observe simultaneously.

“It’s a collaborative experience,” Rebelo said. “It’s very user-friendly and not at all freakish or complex.”

While most audience members are excited to take a turn trying out the VR goggles, some aren’t interested and prefer to watch the screen instead. Peripheral vision of a person’s actual surroundings is eliminated when wearing the goggles, which can cause a small proportion of users to feel queasy or off-balance when viewing a virtual space, Rebelo said.

“Some people are pre-set to say they think they might get sick” if they try it, he said. “The experience provides a sense of amazement and a feeling of awe for 99 percent of users. Some people laugh during it, and others ‘ooh and ahh.’”

Use of the virtual reality technology is a bonus for the Howard County Library System, which had already contracted with Grimm and Parker on the Elkridge project before it became available.

The library system was in the right place at the right time, Brade said.

“It’s such a unique tool and it provides a hands-on approach,” she said.

Rebelo said virtual reality allows clients, architects and engineers to suggest design improvements an at earlier stage in the process, and that desired changes can be made in real time.

Brade said the library was given this opportunity to tour the building months ago, and “we were very pleased with the plan and didn’t change anything.”

The staff is projecting March 10 as the opening date for the Elkridge campus, she said. It will be the sixth construction project completed by the library system since it opened the new Miller branch in December 2011.

Brade also she believes the project, which is currently running ahead of schedule, will come in under budget.

A fifth library project, the $4.7 million expansion underway at the East Columbia branch, is expected to be completed in January, according to Christie Lassen, the library’s communications and partnerships director. A $730,000 renovation of the Glenwood branch is slated to get underway in fall 2018, Lassen said.

The Elkridge branch’s collection, which was 500,000 items, will grow by 10 percent to 15 percent, aided in part by a $125,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Education, Brade said.

The DIY Education Center concept was investigated after it proved popular on the West Coast.

“Berkeley has it, and we thought it would work well here,” Brade said.

The completed branch will contain three meeting rooms, a design studio, a teen area, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classroom, group study rooms, a small-business center and a cafe, among other features — many of which can be viewed during the upcoming presentations.

Using virtual reality to explore a building before it’s constructed “is definitely the wave of the future,” Brade said.


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