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A beginner’s guide to Virtual Reality (VR)

The buzz around VR which coincided with the launch of the Oculus Rift back in 2015 had many people thinking that fully immersive digital experiences would cause an immediate and seismic shift in the arts and culture sector. Fast-forward several years and, while the potential of VR has been showcased in some impressive museum exhibitions, the challenges with the technology still remain significant.

The pace of progress and adoption has perhaps been somewhat slower than one might expect. In fact, a number of the media companies that had invested heavily in VR during those early years – including the New York Times, Discovery Channel and the BBC – have all reduced in acknowledgement that the technology remains relatively niche in the home for the time being.

As VR expert and former commissioning editor for the BBC VR Hub, Zillah Watson, says: “We’ve all seen how exciting VR can be and how much potential it has to offer. The impact it can have on audiences and the way you can tell stories is incredibly exciting. But until the headsets are in everyone’s homes, it will continue to present a challenge.”

Nevertheless, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future of this most sci-fi like innovation and there’s really no doubt that there is an ambition to capitalise on the obvious potential of VR. As Zillah Watson explains, “The audience research that has been carried out is incredibly encouraging with overwhelming evidence to suggest that this is a medium that people love.”

So, with at-home experiences likely to be some way off. What is the immediate and medium-term future for VR, based on some of the most successful exhibitions we’ve witnessed so far? Let’s take a closer look.

Who are the major players in VR?

One of the most exciting things about VR is that, unlike other areas of technology, it is still very much anyone’s game. While internet searches are Google’s domain and smartphones are a constant Apple vs. Android tug-of-war, VR is still a wide and varied landscape. That being said, many of the key players involved are already household names, with Sony and Microsoft among the tech giants investing in the technology.

The Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles worked with Microsoft on a new exhibition that allowed visitors to interact with the Ford GT40: a classic American sports car. The result was a thrilling VR experience that told the story of the car through a combination of interaction, spatial audio, and a blend of real and virtual space. The experience also directly compared the 1960s car to Ford’s 2017 model.

Brands like Sony and Microsoft have an upper hand in VR due to their gaming experience – which is undoubtedly the leading sector for VR applications at this moment in time. However, VR is also expanding to a range of other industries, including healthcare, retail and the training sector.

The pros and cons of VR hardware

So what does make VR work? One of the most exciting aspects of VR is that it puts the viewer in control, by bringing them closer to the world they wish to see. This is perhaps why VR works so well in gaming, where control is paramount. But the concept can be equally applicable in museums, where the notion of a totally accessible and curated cultural landscape is an enticing one indeed.

In 2018, the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki opened a new VR exhibit which allowed visitors to step inside one of the museum’s most celebrated paintings. R.W. Ekman’s The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II is a rich, sumptuous and highly detailed historical painting, and the use of VR headsets made it possible for visitors to place themselves within the scene, looking around the Hall of Mirrors from a 3D perspective.

Not only that, but users could also converse with the Russian Tsar and other characters found within the painting. The artwork is a key piece of documentation regarding Finnish life and politics under the Russian Empire, and the use of VR has enabled visitors to get closer to it than ever before.

Behind the scenes, VR is complex

Of course, no guide to VR would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: VR is expensive. Because it is still a developing area, VR still requires museums to invest in huge amounts in both hardware and software to deliver an immersive and engaging experience.

More technology means more opportunity for things to go wrong. Speaking at the MuseumNext Australia panel discussion in 2017, Nils Pokel from the Auckland War Memorial Museum spoke about his experience with VR exhibits. Although the museum had experienced plenty of positive results from VR, there had also been numerous hurdles and complications. Pokel highlighted one incident in particular where 15 VR headsets, which were fundamental to the exhibition, broke after just a couple of weeks.

Add to this the post-pandemic focus on hygiene where rented devices are less appealing than they may once have been and the cost of intensive cleaning alone could be enough to scupper a museum’s plans for VR.

The push to make VR more accessible has also seen its fair share of challenges, particularly remotely. The number of VR apps for smartphones has increased exponentially in recent years and months, but so have the number of issues involved. Last year, Apple acknowledged that many of its users were experiencing issues with VR apps after updating to iOS 14. Similarly, VR application games like Star Wars™: Jedi Challenges have been faced with an onslaught of complaints and issues from users.

How digitally literate do museums need to be to invest in VR?

It would be easy to take away from this discussion that VR is more trouble than it’s worth, but the fact remains that many museums are seeing hugely positive and popular results from their VR exhibits, and that demand and interest in such exhibits continues to grow.

The key here is not assuming VR must be complex in order to be interesting. In fact, sometimes the simplest forms of VR are among the most successful. For example, the National Museum of Natural History lets viewers use webVR tours to experience their exhibitions, and it is compatible with any virtual reality gear. Likewise, the Louvre created a virtual reality guided tour available both on the web and on a free application.

When VR succeeds, it’s because it adds to the museum experience as a whole, rather than distracting from it. Virtual reality is a way for visitors to feel closer than ever to the artworks and artefacts that interest them. Helping them to achieve that must always be considered a good thing.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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