Two of the hot topics amongst museum technophiles are AR and VR.  Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.  The terms sometimes get muddled, but they are in fact two distinct forms of technology. Today we’re going to have a look at how AR and VR compare and some of the exciting ways they can be applied at your museum.

What Exactly is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality could be described as overlaying the view before your eyes with layers of computer generated information. If you’ve ever watched an American football game on television, you’ve seen a basic form of AR. Information such as the time and score, and graphics like the first down marker are overlaid over your view of the playing field.  Now imagine if you could wear a pair of glasses or goggles which allowed you to walk around a gallery and have vital information overlaid over your view.  The augmentation could be very rudimentary; text might appear describing each piece of art as your gaze shifts from one painting to the next. Or it could be something more complex. A digital sculpture of a horse standing proudly on the floor might come to life and gallop away in a flurry of hooves.

What Exactly is Virtual Reality?

Whereas Augmented Reality is simply the addition of computer generated information and graphics to your view of the world, Virtual Reality is a completely synthetic experience.  These scenes are either entirely completely computer generated, recorded with 360 degree cameras or somewhere in between. You typically enter this artificial world by slipping on a headset and watching the action unfold on a screen or screens. It’s not like watching a movie however. You are able to turn your head and examine your surroundings from most any vantage point. As well, in the case of a computer generated scene, you’ll be able to interact with this world rather than just watching it passively.  To add to the realism, your other senses can be stimulated. Through binaural audio, you’ll hear in 360 perspective as you turn or your head move. You might also be able to feel your environment. This effect is achieved most simply through force-feedback from your game controller when you bump into something.  The sum total of all these technologies is a completely immersive experience. You feel like you are in a new world.

Choosing the Right Gear for Your Museum

There are many hardware combinations that can be used to create an AR experience. The most simple and inexpensive way is through a tablet or a smartphone.  Pokémon Go is surely one of the most widely used AR apps in history.  It’s a simple yet addictive game; players try to catch Pokémon characters by hurling a Pokéball at them with a swipe of their fingers. This is an AR experience as the game play is overlaid over a live video from your smartphone’s camera. Watching your LCD screen, it’s as if you are tossing balls at a Pokémon floating in your front yard.

Museum AR
Museum goers at the ROM using AR as a window into the past. Dinosaur skeletons can be seen covered in flesh and scales by viewing the exhibit using an ordinary tablet.

So Many AR Headsets to Choose From

AR can also be experienced by wearing a special pair of glasses with a head mounted display onto which computer generated text and graphics are projected or displayed.  There are sensors within the headset which detect the orientation of your head in relation to your environment.  They ensure the graphics are accurately overlaid over the background, in terms of position and perspective, as you move. You can interact with AR glasses with voice commands, hand gestures or by using a controller. Google Glass was a rudimentary early example of an AR headset. It was more of a simple head’s up display. It had an info window in the upper corner of your field of view and relied on voice commands.  There are many more sophisticated AR glasses in development including Microsoft’s HoloLens and Meta 2 by Meta which promise superior graphics and more complex interactive experiences where you can manipulate computer generated objects with your hands.

In addition to headsets and tablets, there are AR shader lamps, mobile projectors, virtual tables, and smart projectors. These devices use digital projectors to display the experience onto various surfaces. Imagine if you could convert an ordinary table in your museum into an interactive touch screen.

So Many VR Headsets to Choose From

As with AR, there are countless tech companies producing their own flavor of Virtual Reality hardware. Which one, if any, will become the standard is unclear. Most Virtual Reality solutions require you to wear some kind of  headset. The simplest example is probably Google Cardboard.  This is a cardboard headset into which you slip an Android phone. It’s commonly used to observe photos or videos that have been shot in 360 degrees.  You turn your head to take in the digital scenery from every angle. Samsung’s Gear VR is very similar to Google Cardboard.  It’s a space age looking headset into which you place a high end Samsung Phone. Gear VR experiences can be a bit more interactive as there is a touch pad on the side of the device.  This affords you a built in way to navigate through space or make use of buttons or menus within a VR app.

Gear VR in Musems
Samsung’s Gear VR headset is powered by the company’s own Android phones.

Next you have headsets that require a beefier computer like the Oculus Rift which hooks into a high-end gaming PC. It’s a more expensive investment than the previous two VR devices, but you get much better graphics and the experiences can be fully interactive.  It’s as if you’re entering a game world.  There’s also binaural audio built in to create an even more immersive experience. Wearing a Rift, you can navigate with a wide variety of controllers including a standard mouse and keyboard, an Xbox controller and Oculus’ Touch Controllers.

Other VR headsets include the HTC Vive, Sony’s Playstation VR, Intel’s Project Alloy, the Razer OSVR, Fove VR…the list goes on. If you don’t want to be constrained to wearing a headset, it’s also possible to create Virtual Reality experiences in special rooms where the graphics are displayed on the walls.

Your Imagination (and Your Budget) is the Only Limit

Although these technical choices may seem daunting, the hardest decision is a creative one – figuring out how to incorporate VR or AR into an exhibit.  You’re limited only by your imagination, and budget of course. Museums around the world have taken the dive into VR and AR.  It’s a way of using technology to educate in a fun and engaging way.

A New and Improved Audio Guide

At a basic level, AR can be used in the same way as audio guides and touch screens; to provide additional information about pieces in your exhibit.  A visitor wearing an AR headset can  view an interactive map that leads them through the maze which is your museum.  Gazing at a particular object or marker on the museum floor triggers a multimedia event; supplemental material like pictures, videos and text pop up. The de Young Museum in San Francisco had an AR exhibit for artist Keith Haring. As visitors wandered through the gallery wearing Google Glass headsets, they got to hear interviews with the artist, watch newsreel footage and peruse photos.  Viewers observing his work The Last Rainforest were surprised to see the artist’s iconic baby image emerge from the intricate design.

An AR headset can provide supplemental information about an artist or artwork.

Add Extra Value to Your Exhibits

AR and VR have also been used to bring exhibits to life.  During the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit at the ROM in Toronto, visitors saw a glimpse of their dinosaur fossil collection in the flesh. As viewers looked through tablets in front of the Jurassic skeletons, they saw a window into the past. The bony dinosaur remains appeared covered in muscle and scales. It was a way not only to excite and educate the audience about what dinosaurs might have looked like, but also to add value to the ROM’s existing fossil collection.  

A scene from the British Museum’s bronze age VR exhibit.

The British Museum was similarly able to breathe life into their collection of bronze age artifacts with a Virtual Reality App. By slipping on a Gear VR headset, spectators were transported to a bronze age round house adorned with a handful of household items from their collection including jewellery and a dagger. The items were scanned and imported into the experience allowing spectators to see them in their original context. Items that might be ignored by a casual museum goer had they been seen in a display case became much more engaging.

A Time Machine in Your Museum

Transporting users to different times and spaces is perhaps one of the greatest strength of Virtual Reality from a learning perspective.  Aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin has created a VR bus which takes children on a trip to Mars. It’s a Virtual Reality experience that doesn’t require a headset. The windows of the bus darken and transform into interactive viewing screens. As the bus rolls through the street, children see what it would be like to take a road trip on the sandy red planet

Students experiencing a VR trip to Mars on Lockheed Martin’s Generation Beyond Mars Bus.

AR and VR are also powerful ways of seeing artwork and historic sites restored to their former glory.  The faded frescos at the church of Sant Climent de Taüll in Catalonia, Spain come back to life in vivid colour by way of a projection system which painted the walls with high definition images. Similarly, the company Timescope have created a way to see the demolished Bastille  prison at its former location.  A VR kiosk residing at the bustling Place de la Bastille gives viewers a 360 view of the area in 1416, right after the structure was completed, and in 1789, when it was seized by revolutionaries.

Virtual Reality can be used to expand a museum’s reach and to share its collection with the world. Woofbert VR has created an educational app to take students to some of the great museums and galleries. Essentially, users wander through accurate 3D simulations of various institutions like the Courtauld Gallery in London. Students can listen to supplemental audio to learn more about a particular work of art. Some artwork even comes to life with animation; users can actually step into Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère to experience a bit of 19th century Paris. Though some might fear that apps like these could cause a decline in ticket sales, they are intended to allow a  museum to share its collection with people who might not be able to come in person.  As well, with a limited sampling of artworks and pieces, these apps can also get people excited about what a gallery or museum has to offer before they visit.

Woofbert VR allows students in far away places to visit simulated art galleries and museums.

An Exciting Future Lays Ahead

In just a few short years, there have already been so many great strides in AR and VR technology for museums and, as you’ve seen, the technology has been applied in a myriad of creative ways.  In addition to being an excellent teaching tool and the successor to the audio guide, Augmented and Virtual Reality are a great way to bring life and value to traditional exhibits; visitors can see artifacts from your collection in their historical context. AR and VR also give your museum an affordable time machine to take visitors to different times and places.  All these advances help to keep younger museum goers engaged, and coming through the gate. But this is just the beginning.  It will be exciting to watch how the technology evolves in the coming years at museums around the globe, including your own.

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