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What can museums learn from XR in other industries?

XR is changing the landscape not just for museums but for gaming, theatre, film and more…

It was Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, who made this astute comment on our increasing dependence on technology:

“Every industry and every organisation will have to transform itself in the next few years. What is coming at us is bigger than the original internet, and you need to understand it, get on board with it, and figure out how to transform.”

And when O’Reilly said every industry, he really did mean every industry. In recent years, we’ve seen businesses, brands, institutions and initiatives in every circle altering the way they operate, using technology to branch out and think outside the box.

This is particularly true when it comes to virtual and augmented reality. We’ve talked a lot about how museums and galleries have been using XR to change the way they deliver exhibitions, improve accessibility and retain engagement during unprecedented periods of lockdown. But it’s also seen a meteoric rise in industries like gaming, training and more.

So, if we take a peek at what’s going on elsewhere in the world of immersive experiences, what lessons can be taken from this and applied to museums in the modern age?

In the words of Dave Patten from The Science Museum aptly explains: “If you always just look to museums you just get what museums have always done. There are people doing a host of interesting things in a whole variety of different fields . . . you can never look too widely for ideas. The challenge is just to stay up to date with where all that stuff is going.”

XR in gaming

Gaming is inarguably where the XR revolution has gained most traction. Before other industries had even considered utilising XR, gamers were already embracing headsets and investing in the latest immersive content from their favourite developers. Of course, gaming is the perfect playground for escapism and gamers are already familiar with investing substantial sums of money in the tech that facilitates their immersive experiences. So, whether it’s The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, Astro Bot Rescue Mission or Star Wars: Squadrons there are a host of examples of successful games with avid followers utilising leading tech from Oculus, PSVR and more.

Perhaps one of the most famous exercises in XR gaming, however, came in AR format back in 2016. While the Pokémon Go craze may now have died down, the impact it has had on our understanding of AR applications has changed dramatically. Indeed, if we needed proof of concept that AR in the wild could work, then this showed us all on a global scale.

What can museums learn?

The tech and execution of Pokémon Go was nothing particularly special, but the idea itself was brilliant. Many 90s kids spent their youth dreaming of a world where they could catch and travel with their favourite Pokémon, and by combining modern tech with millennial nostalgia, the app provided the next best thing. The result was a surge in Pokémon’s popularity that hadn’t been seen since its initial hay day.

If there is one thing that museums are not short of it is emotive, nostalgia-inducing content and awe-inspiring visuals to tap into. And with AR in the home and even AR in the streets growing in popularity – as is evident in the recent Augmented Gallery initiative – it is clear that museums’ appetite for XR innovation is only growing.

XR in film and theatre

Museums aren’t the only establishments to have provided virtual solutions to physical restrictions over the past year. With theatres and cinemas around the world closing their doors to the public, institutions were forced to rely on VR to keep interest alive. Yet the results weren’t the poor substitute you might expect. In many ways, it may have offered a glimpse at the future of the film landscape.

Last April, after the cancellation of San Francisco’s DocFest, VR company BigScreen organised virtual replacement screening at the shuttered Roxy Theatre. The technology allowed for just twelve people at a time to view the programmed films, so back-to-back screenings were organised. This created a deluxe, exclusive experience that mimicked the feel of a cinema trip while also elevating it. And theatres have been following similar protocols, with research from the University of Essex highlighting the potential of VR in bringing theatre performances to people’s homes.

What can museums learn?

Again, we’re seeing the value of XR in meeting demands and resolving limitations. In some of these instance, we have seen the application of communal VR, generating a collective sense of engagement rather than just the isolating experience often associated with immersive experiences.

This isn’t entirely new in museum spaces, of course. Exhibitions like the National Museum of Singapore’s Story of the Forest created an immersive three-dimensional installation that visitors could experience together. However, the growing trend towards communal XR in other sectors is something that museum professionals would do well to follow closely.

XR in libraries

XR isn’t exclusive to entertainment and spectacle. It can also be used to help us learn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in libraries, where education is always at the forefront.

School and university libraries have been increasingly making use of virtual and augmented realities as a way to make learning more accessible. In 2020, Brigham Young University completed a survey into the use of virtual reality within academic library spaces, finding that it had the potential to make learning not only more accessible, but more engaging, too. The library offered HTC Vive VR system technology that could be reserved and used by patrons, with the intention to expand their VR services significantly.

What can museums learn?

Clearly, this particular application had a focus on long-term impact rather than fleeting experience. This raises an interesting idea for museums around the world: that there are times when the spectacle must give way to something deeper, such as an increased knowledge base or a closer relationship to the actual exhibition or artefacts on show.

As VR exhibitions like the famous Mona Lisa: Behind the Glass proved, the most successful XR exhibitions are those that use technology to bring us closer to the subject matter; not always embellish it.

Final thoughts

Successful XR isn’t about supplying the flashiest, priciest option, but about meeting the needs of users. It can be communal or solitary, informative or immersive, but from the simple genius of Pokémon Go to the educational prowess of XR in a library context, the ‘best’ XR is that which genuinely connects with users.

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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