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Has COVID-19 accelerated the progression of Extended Reality?

When discussing innovation, progress and excitement in the context of the last 15 months, we must first acknowledge that no silver linings can compensate for the hardships and heartache caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic. No cultural institution has been entirely immune to the effects of a virus that has closed down large portions of the global economy and has taken the lives of many thousands of people.

What we can say, however, is that the tenacious and positive response of organisations forced to deliver content in new and creative ways has been incredibly heartening. As is so often the case, adversity breeds innovation – and, ultimately, drives long-term progress. And this has certainly be the case in the XR space since Spring 2020 (XR means Extended Reality the term for the combined Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality technologies).

We shouldn’t pretend that the XR revolution started with the coronavirus pandemic, of course. For more than a decade now, we’ve seen museums and galleries delving deeper into the digital world in order to create immersive and revolutionary experiences for their visitors.

However, the pandemic certainly increased the pressure on museums and galleries to go digital. What began as a grab for web-ready content by many institutions has turned into a more considered approach to digital – and a growing understanding that there are ways to develop experiences and exhibitions that are both multi-layered and multi-platform.

It is also worth noting that visitors of all ages and backgrounds are now significantly more comfortable with using their own digital devices for an array of remote and in-person activities. The fact that a new generation of silver surfers now knows how to place a home delivery order for her groceries is well covered in the media. But the widespread adoption of QR codes for track and trace purposes, and the broader adoption of mobile tools should also not be underestimated.

So, how should we reflect on the progress made over the last 12 months?

Progress has been dictated by necessity

The biggest player in the enhanced experience space during 2020 and 2021 has undoubtedly been Google with its widely used Arts & Culture platform. Although it has come in for criticism from some quarters (both from a user experience and in terms of the efficacy of the long-term business model for institutions) there is no doubt that Google’s toolkit has succeeded in democratising access to art and culture at a time when people were feeling isolated and disconnected from their favourite collections.

Google’s offering has expanded over the course of 2020 and into 2021 with over 2,000 museums and galleries now using the platform. As culture lovers will know, this includes the likes of the Guggenheim in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

While many organisations already had 360-degree tours created and launched; few had a platform would facilitate the number of visits and views that could be offered by Google’s platform in this timeframe.

There has also been a significant surge in the use of Virtual Reality (VR) and particularly Augmented Reality (AR) experiences over the course of the pandemic. By now we are all familiar with the benefits of AR as the perfect Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) solution for the hygiene conscious society we find ourselves in. In fact, a whole host of industries have latched onto AR as the technology de jour. From retail to the training sector, industrial design to healthcare, AR is everywhere it seems.

According to data analysis by Research Dive, the anticipated 2020 market value of AR in healthcare 2020 was set to be US$477.1million. In light of the pandemic, it is thought that the market has actually increased to nearer US$504.6million.

While growth figures in the museum space are harder to come by, instances of AR experiences being offered by museums around the world has certainly increased – particularly where institutions can see both on-site and remote potential for exhibitions and experiences. Having grown to understand the online audience in much greater depth over the course of the pandemic, it seems inconceivable that this trend will not continue in the coming months and years.

Museums and galleries have experimented with contactless shows, outdoor shows – like the Augmented Gallery in London’s West End – and home-based immersive experiences that can all be accessed using a standard mobile device. Alongside this, gesture-based technology, AI triggers, voice commands and high frequency RFID are just some of the ways that museums are now encouraging engagement without direct physical contact.

Times Square’s COOLTURE IMPACT installation is an eye-catching example of this. A unique art installation featuring LED video walls paired with motion-responsive technology, this immersive experience “allows passers-by to make artistic digital canvases come alive with their own movement,” as Tani Klein of Planar (the tech wizards behind the installation) puts it.

But while the high production experiences like COOLTURE IMPACT or impressive VR experiences like The Louvre’s Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass may grab many of the headlines, it is often the more cost-effective and accessible XR projects that have proven themselves to deliver the greatest impact.

Some experts in the field will tell us that this shouldn’t surprise us. Speaking back in 2016, Playlines AR Studios Creative Director, Rob Morgan explained: “Imagination is still an incredibly powerful tool, and in many ways it’s the easiest tool to manipulate – it’s a lot cheaper to manipulate imagination than it is to create very expensive 3D graphics.”

Morgan continues: “It’s not about being bigger and better and more immersive and more realistic, it’s about creating things that fit around our lives.”

This, it seems, is where the real magic lies. With a mobile phone in every pocket, almost all of us have the capacity to access XR in one way or another at any time, anywhere. Convenience does appear to be the key and this is ultimately where progress may lie.

While largescale VR exhibitions are indeed impressive, they can also be costly and risky for smaller institutions or those feeling particularly light in the pocket after the trauma of recent months. XR that makes museums more accessible and immersive through simpler, or at least less resource-intensive, methods may well be deemed higher priority by visitors than ones dependent on expensive hardware and blockbuster graphics.

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