Augmented reality offers museums the opportunity to bring history to life
AR, or augmented reality, has rapidly been inserting itself into our daily lives over the past few years. Once thought of as a nothing more than a figment of science fiction, AR is now accessible to us at the click of a button. Or, more commonly, the tap of a smartphone screen.
Some of the most successful applications of AR tech have been through gaming platforms, of course. Most of us will be familiar with the Pokémon Go craze, which seemed to sweep the world over the course of a few short weeks.
But what about the use of such a technology in museum spaces, and in particular for heritage sites? Does cutting edge augmentation that requires viewing through a device undermine the connection between viewer and artefact? Or is it possible to bring the past more clearly back to life with the aid of a little bit of digital magic?
Before we investigate this, let’s briefly review what Augmented Reality is and how it works.
How does AR work?
Fundamentally, there are two kinds of triggers involved in AR technology – GPS and camera. GPS triggers are based on location, meaning that a modern AR app receives your location and triggers content to appear, be it sounds, messages, displays or a combination of all three.
While GPS triggers do require a good GPS signal, they can be a great way to guide visitors around a site without the need for physical signs. It allows curators to include stimuli that make the setting feel more real, such as the sound of swords clashing on the battlefield or the rush of wind howling through a mountain village. Done well, this can enhance the immersive experience that we all appreciate when we visit a Roman ruin or medieval fort perhaps.
Meanwhile, camera triggers make use of the complex image recognition carried out by current smartphone cameras. AR apps take this image recognition and use it to trigger content when the phone is pointing at an object, pattern or text. Think of a grand dining table in a 16th century castle that becomes bedecked with lavish food and expensive settings when viewed through a smartphone screen.
Augmented versus virtual reality
AR and VR are both making their way into museums and heritage site, but there are distinct differences between these two schools of technology. While virtual reality offers total immersion into a different reality, AR allows the altered reality and the actual reality to be viewed side by side. Virtual Reality replaces what is seen; while AR adds to the reality being experienced – an approach that has a number of benefits.
This allows site staff to put scenes into context and highlight areas of interest with minimal requirements. While VR can be tricky to integrate successfully, AR rarely requires more than a smartphone or tablet and a specialised app.
Augmented reality heritage sites
When used well, AR tech can support or even replace the traditional tour or re-enactment. By bringing forward information, showing areas and artefacts in context, and bringing liveliness and dynamism to historical settings, it can add to the visitor experience and increase understanding.
A fine example of AR in action today can be found at Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK. To enhance the user experience of the site, the Bridge Trails app was developed to allow users to explore audio and visual content at fifteen distinct points on and around the famous bridge.
This includes guided narration and artists’ impressions. Walking along the bridge one will find a number of AR updates at intermittent points. Importantly, though, the app also allows users to explore the bridge virtually from any location – ensuring that education needn’t finish at the end of the trip.
The National Museum of Singapore
In museum spaces, AR has been equally successful. In the National Museum of Singapore, an immersive installation called Story of the Forest received critical praise. This exhibit focuses on 69 images from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings.
Through AR technology, these drawings were transformed into 3D animations that visitors could interact with directly. By downloading an app, visitors could use their phone cameras to explore the images in greater detail.
Microsoft and the Kyoto National Museum
AR can bring tech brands and artistic centres together, as was the case with Microsoft and the Kyoto National Museum. The collaboration resulted in an immersive exhibit showcasing the art of the oldest Zen temple in Japan – Kennin-ji.
By wearing a HoloLens headset, visitors were able to see 400 year-old artefacts in their rightful home: filling the walls and ceiling of the museum. A life-size hologram of a Zen Buddhist monk also toured around the space alongside them.
Head of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios program, Steve Sullivan, commented on the use of AR in museum spaces, saying:
“It’s getting museums to think outside of their physical confines. They can have hosts and guides showing you more.”
The future of heritage sites
One of the fears museum workers and heritage staff have with regards to AR is that the technology may serve as a distraction from the attraction itself.
While this concern certainly has some credibility, there are many examples of how AR has now been used with skill and great sensitivity to provide an enhanced visitor experience. And it would be fair to say that as the use of AR advances and becomes more commonplace, the integration of such innovative tools into heritage sites and museum installations will become ever more seamless.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.