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VR has a bright future but AR is the present

As we emerge slowly and cautiously from the challenges of the pandemic, museums have decisions to make about which horses they will be backing in the technology space over the coming months and years. As any museum professional will tell you, this is an incredibly difficult task. Budget constraints will almost certainly be with us for years to come and so investing in the right digital areas will be critical.

There’s no doubt that the events of 2020 have given even the most conservative of technophobes an appreciation of the role digital must now play in the future of museums and galleries. But while 2020 was often about squeezing value out of existing assets and maintaining visitor engagement, 2021 and 2022 will certainly be about finding that hybrid model between online and in-person delivery. This means that digital will have to align with an organisation’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and generate a tangible return on investment. It will also have to complement rather than compete with the drive to sell tickets – something it has not had to do, on the whole, over the last 12 months or so.

For many institutions, the front runner in this particular race is undoubtedly Augmented Reality (AR). Why? Because it has great potential in creating that crucial bridge between the digital and the physical.

Interactivity, layering of content, enhanced and immersive experiences, on-site and at-home applications: AR can do it all.

This isn’t a new phenomenon created by the pandemic, of course. AR was already being used widely before the Coronavirus outbreak. However, its benefits have certainly come into sharp focus as institutions have begun to contemplate life after lockdown.

We know, for instance, that concerns over health and safety will remain front of mind for some time to come. Those learned behaviours of 2020 will undoubtedly stay with us for the short to mid-term future. And the Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) benefits of AR make it the perfect solution for museums and galleries that might otherwise have to implement rigorous hardware cleaning schedules or even do away with devices altogether.

Secondly, the cost benefits of BYOD are significant. Being able to develop immersive experiences and enhanced exhibits without the overheads of hardware make AR a flexible and agile option for museums running on tight budgets. Given that millions of people are now familiar with scanning QR codes to authenticate their whereabouts, being able to use them to navigate a museum experience isn’t the leap in demand that it was once perceived to be.

AR also offers much to those wanting to enjoy content from their favourite museum or gallery in the home. Take the Acute App, for example, which has enabled artists like Olafur Eliasson to create playful works that can be superimposed in your living room, kitchen or even your downstairs toilet. From a radiant sun to the Northern Lights, Eliasson’s Wunderkammer collection is certainly capable of creating the kind of delight and wonderment that is often reserved for the halls of a museum.

Given the widespread access to smartphones and tablets (for users of all ages) in 2021, few would argue that AR-based content is an exclusionary practice as it might once have been. Compare that to a BYOD VR installation or at-home experience on the other hand and we might have a different view – given that adoption of VR headsets is so much smaller.

As of March this year, the global number of VR headset users is currently thought to stand at 171 million. While this certainly isn’t a small number, it pales into insignificance alongside the 3 billion smartphone users worldwide.

What about VR?

While the next few years promise to be bright for Augmented Reality, the future for Virtual Reality experiences is a little less clear. There are significant barriers to the widespread adoption of on-site VR, the primary being cost and hygiene as described above. There is also the issue around the progression of headset technology and the large number of players in the market all running proprietary systems that lack compatibility with each other.

Additionally, the demands on bandwidth to deliver high quality, beautifully rendered VR experiences is likely to remain problematic for some years to come – although it should be noted that this hasn’t deterred users in the gaming space.

Nevertheless, recent predictions suggest that VR headset adoption is increasing at pace. By the end of 2020 it was estimated that consumer spending on VR and AR-based systems had increased by 78%, while forecasts suggested that the same kind of growth was likely to be replicated year on year through to 2024.

There is no doubt that once adoption is more widespread, the future for VR will be bright – both within museum spaces and through at-home delivery. Giving users the capacity to immerse themselves in the galleries and exhibitions from the comfort of their own living room is something that will be truly valuable from an accessibility perspective, introducing more people than ever before to the artworks and artefacts that institutions have to offer.

Virtual Reality Museum

As we begin to predict what lies ahead for the remainder of the decade, some have suggested that VR may represent the added value proposition that has most potential as a source of online income. While many institutions have elected to share their digital estate for free during the pandemic, showing integrity and empathy during challenging times, there’s no doubt that some form of paid delivery – be it a Netflix-style online subscription or pay as you go digital ticket – is likely in the future.

As was articulately explained by Tate’s Hilary Knight in February ahead of the MuseumNext Digital Summit, those discussions are unlikely to be far away for museums and galleries around the world:

“I don’t think that the last 12 months has been the right time to make that leap at Tate. I don’t think it would have landed well for us to charge for our content during this period. We needed our audience to know we were there for them during the difficult times and that arts and culture could be a positive feature in their life – when everything else was difficult and restrictive.

“Instead, we’ve concentrated on monitoring how our audience interacts with the content we are producing. This enables us to ask the question: in the future would we consider charging for this type of content?

“One thing I’m adamant about, though, is that if digital content and online experiences are utilised to supplement income, they must feel authentic and add genuine value. Otherwise they won’t work.”

If at-home VR experiences are to become a valuable part of museums’ future, it will be necessary for it to be revenue generator; able to justify the challenges and complexities it presents.

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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