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Collaboration is key to getting VR to where we all know it should be

Man wearing virtual reality headset

As the old saying goes: “a problem shared is a problem halved”. So, how can collaboration help to reduce the burden on individual museums when it comes to accelerating the progress of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies?

There’s no doubt that VR has caught the attention of the museum community in recent years. An exciting and visually stimulating technology that serves to immerse viewers in a given environment, virtual reality has the power to enhance storytelling and reimagine worlds.

VR has been used around the globe to reconstruct scenarios from history, interpret experiences and deepen knowledge. Having been through many of the challenges of early adoption, most would agree that VR has a bright future in arts and culture. And, as institutions look to engage a younger audience, using the same “cool” tech that has caused a stir in the gaming world, many believe that it has a significant role to play in attracting the museum visitors of the future.

But while the appetite for VR innovation and advancement is certainly there, the practicalities of this technology may inhibit development for some time to come. After a 12-month period that has battered and beaten the museum sector, there’s no doubt that money will be tight for the foreseeable future.

Such has been the toll inflicted by Covid-19 that curators and programming teams may need to appraise the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of exhibits in a way that they may not have previously done. Add to that the issue of hygiene in rented hardware, and it would seem that the barriers to VR remain significant while we all experience the unwanted hangover of the Coronavirus.

Having spent much of the last year trying to develop digital content to deliver at-home experiences and improve accessibility, VR would, at first glance, seem to be a popular choice for programming teams. But the truth is that access to VR hardware – in the form of headsets – is still extremely small. This makes the at-home VR experience one that is reserved for a tiny minority of museumgoers.

Although manufacturers such as HTC, Oculus and Samsung have made strides forward in terms of the availability of good quality headsets for consumers, the levels of convenience and control will need to significantly improve if this hardware is to enter the mainstream. Add to this the challenge of internet bandwidth in streaming the large quantities of data involved in a high-quality VR experience and it becomes clear that we are still some way from widespread at-home adoption.

At the end of 2020, research from Omdia, suggested that household penetration had reached 1.2% of the market across 32 leading countries. While that is a lot of people, it certainly comes nowhere near to the household figures for smartphone ownership.

That is not to say that the option of at-home VR shouldn’t be offered by museums where possible. However, during a time when museums will almost certainly have to base their KPIs around re-engagement, footfall and reach, investing heavily in small niches is unlikely to be at the core of any bounce-back business plans.

As Dave Patten of London’s science museum mentioned in a recent virtual round-table session for MuseumNext, “We’re trying to abstract the interface from the content so that it’s easy to change.”

It is much more likely that Augmented Reality (AR) will be leveraged as a short-term focus because it requires nothing but a smartphone for delivery. So, with VR in the home likely to be a medium-term goal rather than a short one, what does that mean for in-museum experiences?

VR adoption will rely on teamwork to share the burden

Perhaps the most high-profile use of VR in recent museum exhibitions is The Louvre’s Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass. And this serves as a prime example of how collaboration has facilitated experimentation – innovation that would simply not be possible without financial support from commercial partners.

In the case of The Louvre, a partnership with HTC Vive Arts gave the museum access to the very latest VR headsets and high-quality production. In return, the electronics manufacturer gained itself prime position in the museum shop window and a platform to demonstrate how VR can elevate a cultural visit.

Without the “loaning” of the HTC Vive Cosmos VR headsets costing $699 each, the fee for such an endeavour would have been quite sizeable – even without the visual effects and rendering work required to create the immersive experience itself. Given that at The Louvre, staff are also required to supervise users as they traverse the museum environment, it becomes clear that the cost and labour intensiveness would make it difficult to scale up the exhibition to the visitor numbers of a more traditional museum experience.

As a recent whitepaper entitled Virtual Reality in Museums showed, the overall cost of VR exhibits remains “prohibitive” in many instances. The issue of equipment costs, additional staffing, repair, maintenance and visual production are challenges that are simply too great for most institutions on their own right now. Yet, there are a growing number of examples of technology companies looking to trade their equipment and financial backing in exchange for access to the stories, settings and audience numbers that museums can provide, in order to test their equipment and experiences.

Tech companies aren’t the only organisations looking to partner on VR projects, however. Universities such as UCL and the University of Barcelona have developed a reputation for their work on VR in recent years. In the case of University College London, the Life and Engineering Sciences department collaborated with the Grant Museum of Zoology to explore how VR could extend and enhance the visitor experience as part of the VR:Cell exhibit.

According to VR expert and former commissioning editor for the BBC VR Hub, Zillah Watson, the key to making progress over the coming years will lie not just in collaboration between museums and commercial partners but also between museums themselves.

She says, “My biggest concern over the coming years is the potential for fragmentation . . . if museums all go in different directions and invest too much before VR technologies have gone through a period of consolidation, there could be substantial waste of resource.”

Zillah explains that experimentation and testing will be crucial in museums in the immediate future. But she explains, “Working on the distribution and audience experience challenges may require collaboration and shared knowledge between museums.”

She advocates a strategic and considered approach as a sector that will help institutions to find a common and more cost-effective path forward over the long term.

While the future for VR is still unclear and there are likely to be many bumps in the road before it becomes standard tech, there’s no doubt that a joined up approach will be key to making adoption a smoother process.

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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