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So, you think your museum should invest in VR?

Would it be a stretch to state that digital solutions have saved the arts and culture sector during the COVID-19 pandemic? While physical restrictions have prevented people from visiting their favourite galleries, theatres, museums and more, technology has helped to keep the connection between visitor and institution alive.

Now, as museums begin to look towards a future beyond Coronavirus, digital strategies will undoubtedly garner more interest than ever before. No longer a peripheral feature or bolt-on addition to the broader business plan, there will certainly be pressure from digital teams to push for greater budget and resource after a year in which online programming has become a museum staple.

Of course, belts will remain tight for many months and even years to come as the full financial impact of Covid is borne out. And while this will certainly present challenges for digital heads, the desire to innovate and experiment in this space remains strong.

Augmented Reality (AR) seems to be the most likely field of exploration for many institutions in the short-term future. Relatively easy to develop and deliver, with both on-site and online applications that can be enjoyed through handheld devices, the idea of enhancing the real-world experience is something that can get programming teams’ creative juices flowing. Perhaps more importantly, AR projects won’t automatically have finance teams falling off their seats in shock.

But what about Virtual Reality (VR)?

Well, AR’s big brother presents more significant challenges in the immediate future – both in terms of cost, resource, shelf life and (in a post-Covid world) hygiene.

There are, of course, a number of well-documented VR projects that have given us a flavour for the incredible potential of this technology. From the Louvre’s Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass VR experience to NASA VR, we can all see that there is scope to deliver exciting and immersive exhibitions using VR.

But in such uncertain and financially constrained times, those looking to invest in VR must make their due diligence process more rigorous than ever.

Ask yourself the right questions (and veto the wrong content)

Before choosing to invest in VR, museums need to be sure that a fully immersive otherworldly experience is really right for the institution and the audience. VR experiences can help museums reach new audiences all over the world – but, importantly, any VR content delivered online works on the premise that users have the right hardware to hand.

Outside of gaming circles, VR headsets are still relatively niche and with players like Oculus, HTC and Samsung in the marketplace, it can be difficult to marry the audience with the platform on a remote basis.

In-person experiences are very different, of course, giving museums complete control over the hardware and software delivery. Here, too, though it is crucial to ensure that immersive VR is the right technology for a given exhibition.

Is your exhibition likely to tour? And are you considering VR for a permanent or temporary installation? Have you allowed budget for repairs, cleaning and software updates? These are all important factors that must be addressed before a final decision is made.

As an example of VR used to great effect, we need only look at the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Their Guts & Glory: The War Train that Shaped a Nation exhibition told the story of the 60,000 Czech and Slovak soldiers stranded in Russia at the end of the First World War. By seizing the Trans-Siberian Railway, the soldiers fought their way 5,000 miles to reach ally support in Vladivostok. The exhibition included VR that was created collaboratively with invaluable community support. Cedar Rapids Metro High School students designed replica train cars for the exhibition, while Iowa BIG students created a VR experience that put visitors in the shoes of the soldiers themselves.

Taking visitors on a journey

Another key point for consideration before committing to a VR investment is assessing audience requirements. How relevant or desirable is VR for an audience demographic?

Back in 2017, The Tate’s Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier was well received for its recreation of the artist’s early 20th century Paris studio. Guests could put themselves in the artist’s shows and enter a 3D model of the studio. This allowed visitors to explore not only the artist’s work but immerse themselves in the inspirational surroundings of a Parisian environment, too.

This type of commercial creativity reflects the kind of forward-thinking approach that the Tate has long been renowned for – so much so that it won the prestigious Best in Book award in the 2018 Creative Annual. Over 78,000 visitors enjoyed this exhibition, using HTC VIVE headsets. At the time, PRELOADED founder and Creative Director, Phil Stuart described the VR installation as adding “a unique interpretive layer to their experience”.

Hitting the right note is hard

The process of creating VR experiences may be bedded in science but appealing to visitors is certainly an art form. By this token, it’s true that not everyone will always understand or appreciate those efforts.

There have been incidents of VR not quite hitting the mark in museum spaces (at least in some critical circles). Writing for Apollo Magazine in June 2020, Georgia Haseldine described her experience with the Centre Pompidou’s first museum video game, Prisme 7, which rewards players with artworks from the museum’s collection. Haseldine wrote: “As I struggle through the maze … I’m reminded of getting lost at the Pompidou when I first lived in Paris. After 30 minutes I had slunk away having not seen any art.”

Certainly, this perspective may not be reflective of every visitor experience. However, it does highlight the pitfalls that are inherent in complex, technology-based installations. Creating a seamless and intuitive experience is every bit as difficult the technicalities of the VR development itself. Indeed, VR presents its own unique challenges, such as inducing nausea in some visitors and simply alienating museum purists who prefer to roam galleries as part of a more traditional experience.

Accessibility is another key consideration, too, because VR experiences need to be adaptable to those who are hard of hearing or visually impaired. Alongside this is the critical issue of hygiene, which is now firmly under the spotlight thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. If visitors are required to share headsets and hardware with strangers, they will certainly want to know that there are stringent cleaning measures in place.

VR in a post-COVID world: does it have a place?

Coming out of COVID-19, reach and engagement will be the drivers for most museums. In this context, VR may not be the first port of call for many institutions looking to scale up their digital activity. As discussed in a recent MuseumNext article on VR, collaboration between multiple partner organisations currently represents the best path forward for the majority of institutions – particularly while at-home VR remains niche.

For those able to build a strong case for virtual reality experiences, however, the potential benefits of staying ahead of the curve may be hugely beneficial in the long term.

Does VR have an immediate future for museums or are we still a decade away from a meaningful breakthrough? We’ll be exploring the complex relationship between museums and VR at the MuseumNext XR Summit, taking place virtually this July. 

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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