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Building a Botanical VR Experience at Kew Gardens in One Day

Kew Gardens offers so much as a visitor experience that it’s hard to see how technology could in any way improve the sights, sounds and smells of this colourful oasis in the heart of Richmond, London.   

But as Laura Loonstein from the female-founded collective at Inkibit Immersive told the MuseumNext Digital Summit, a playful VR collaboration over the course of a one-day hack helped to create a truly engaging experience served to open up collections to new audiences and offer a variation on the traditional visitor experience.

Identifying the narrative

Inkibit aim to look beyond traditional means of sharing content and instead explores new ways of storytelling through innovative technologies.  To explore this further, Laura and Maf’j Alvarez, the founder of Inkibit, visited Kew Gardens Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives In January 2020 to participate in a one day hack centred around exploring the work of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker.

As one would expect, a vast amount of his work is catalogued in the library archives at Kew and much of this work has never been made available to the public.  The team at Kew recognised this and wanted to explore new ways of presenting Hooker’s collection in a way that transcended the museum and archive walls to reach a wider audience.

Both Laura and Maf’j were introduced to the vast array of sketches, drawings and letters describing Hooker’s explorations across the globe.  As the first European to collect plants in the Himalayas, his drawings from this time were particularly spellbinding and a theme was narrowed down to a particular plant encounter that occurred in Sikkim, a state in Northeastern India.  The Rheum Nobilis is a giant herbaceous plant known as the noble rhubarb with a fascinating array of features discovered and recorded in detail by Hooker on his visit to Sikkim.  With a theme to work on, Inkibit has established a narrative to deliver on their hackathon and create a new visitor experience through tech.

The Noble Rhubarb

Laura and Maf’j set to work dividing resources to find mention of Sikkim or the noble rhubarb, another group sourced visuals and another set up a VR Project in a 3D rendering programme.

Inkibit is focused on making tech experiences more accessible to broader audiences. And so the team wanted to recreate the noble rhubarb in a 3D visual that supported interaction with the object from a virtual reality perspective.  In a one-day hackathon there isn’t space or time to create absolutely everything but the purpose is to generate ideas and creativity to be applied in other settings.

In this case, Inkibit created a VR immersive experience that transported viewers to a 360-degree wraparound landscape based on the original landscape drawings of the mountains and horizon in Sikkim.

Describing the outcome, Laura says: “On one side of the environment landscape sit a couple of Hooker’s original botanical drawings of the noble rhubarb. Placed in the middle section of the environment, a virtual recreation of the noble rhubarb made by compiling the leaves into a towering structure to replicate what it’s like. You can approach the plant or anywhere you like really in the environment by using teleportation. So pointing with the right hand controller to the bit on the floor where you’d like to travel to, and by holding it down, it will literally teleport you there.  Like travelling in the blink of an eye.”

There were of course aspects that couldn’t be achieved in one day. Including integrated letters to interact with as part of the sensory experience but the purpose was to show what can be achieved in a multidisciplinary setting in a short space of time.

Institutions in the GLAM sector create such multisensory installations and through this one day hackathon, Inkibit established the way VR can be a beautiful way to showcase, interact and play with material that otherwise would be inaccessible.

Laura Loonstein spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Summit in June 2022. Find out how you can watch all the presentations from this event on-demand here.

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