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Is VR the solution to isolation or part of the problem?

Virtual Reality has been with us for several years now. And the concept of donning a headset and immersing oneself in a world of computer-generated fun has long been hailed as a medium that will become central to the way we consume content and experience culture in the future.

Like many other forms of technology, the shift from science fiction to tangible innovation has had a few bumps in the road. Indeed, we are still some years away from the kinds of virtual entertainment that have been tantalisingly explored in movies and literature over recent decades. Yet with the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, there is no doubt that VR (and its sister technology, AR) has come to the fore as a critical tool in helping people stay connected and feel engaged during long periods of isolation.

Not surprisingly, it is in the gaming sector that we have seen the biggest uptake in VR headsets, as avid players have looked to elevate their gameplay into a truly immersive experience. Thanks to the advent of online gaming, playing in a VR world can now be done collaboratively with other users in real time. There is no doubt that this feature has kept children and adults alike in more regular communication with friends than would otherwise have been the case over the last 18 months.

But we have seen VR grow in other fields, too. From teaching and training to work-based conferencing and even just digital social gatherings. The likes of Rec Room, VR Chat and Facebook’s much anticipated Horizon platform all promise to make virtual socialising accessible from the comfort of one’s own home.

Museums and tourist attractions have also demonstrated that they can deliver exciting and sociable headset-based experiences to ease the loneliness and anxiety of lockdowns.

From heritage sites in Pompeii and Rome to Washington war memorials and even European brewery tours, the likes of Oculus Experiences have provided many hours of enjoyment and insight to those who not only miss cultural experiences but also miss doing so with friends and family.

According to Paige Dansinger, founding director of Better World Museum and Horizon Art Museum, social XR has the power to both engage individuals with art in new ways and also find a sense of community when they perhaps lack the confidence to do so in person. In a recent interview she said,

“I learned that social XR was the best – if not the only – tool that was needed to have a strong healthy museum community. The trust, relationships and presence are all there.”

We should be clear that cultural institutions had been exploring the potential of VR long before any of us had even heard the word ‘coronavirus’ – both as a way of developing new exhibition experiences on-site and in improving accessibility for those unable to physically visit their favourite museum or gallery. But the adoption of these tools and the focus on making them available has certainly increased since Covid-19 first struck.

Few would argue that VR, and immersive experiences more broadly, have been incredibly important to the maintenance of community, collaboration and mental stimulation on a fundamental level. By combating boredom, anxiety and isolation there is little doubt that the world is a better place because of the digital tools at our disposal.

While one might argue that the accessibility of VR is still far from universal – a fair point that certainly warrants further discussion – the fact remains that some virtual reality accessibility is preferable to none at all.

If VR has done so much to keep us connected and promises to do so increasingly as the technology advances, why should we have cause to be concerned?

Ask any museum’s head of digital for their take on the remote delivery of content and they will be quick to state that a museum’s online efforts are never designed to discourage people from visiting their favourite institution.

As Tate’s Director of Digital, Hilary Knight, explained in a MuseumNext interview earlier this year, “Digital isn’t there to compete with, replace or detract from the in-person experience. That never was the intention and it never will be, so we need to understand how it can provide a complementary, supporting or even standalone experience to lovers of art and culture.”

While this is undoubtedly true, the question remains: do we need to consider the consequences if the right balance can’t be struck? For instance, what happens if the best intentions go awry? After all, computer game developers don’t intend to create sedentary lifestyles but the links between gaming and childhood obesity are well established.

The argument against gaming and “second life-ing” has often pointed to concerns over whether people are too willing to withdraw into a digital environment to such an extent that they lose touch with the outside world. Or at least that they fail to enjoy the many benefits of physical interaction with both people and cultural artefacts. By improving the virtual experience to fantastic, fully-immersive levels and allow people to communicate with their friends and family in this format, how willing will they be to step outside and put in the miles required to do so in person?

This is not an argument for holding back on accessibility. However, it must at the very least be a question that the museum community are willing to address and perhaps even combat.

One key advantage that museums and galleries have over gaming, of course, is that there is a physical experience to be had that can be tied to the virtual experience. For gamers playing a shoot-em-up game set on an alien planet, there isn’t a ready-made real-life alternative that could be offered. Nevertheless, it may be fair to assert that museums must tread carefully when developing their digital content and understand that there is a balance to strike.

We should not be under any impressions that there aren’t parents out there in the world who wish their children would spend fewer hours playing eSports and a few more hours getting outside to play physical sports with their friends.

The debate on the issue of VR should not then be about whether it is a good or a bad thing for museums and galleries. As most of us have found in recent months, communicating via purely digital means can be incredibly convenient. But failing to experience those other physical interactions has also had a detrimental effect on both body and mind for many in the workplace.

Instead, the conversation should be around how both forms of delivery can be made cohesive, complementary and cognisant of the potential pitfalls.

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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