XR experiences are increasingly relying on visitors to use their own devices. But is this a long-term change or a short-term fix for the pandemic?
As museums and galleries reopened their doors in the summer of 2020, there was a rush by many institutions to up their XR game. Savvy institutions quickly realised that the creation of on-site AR experiences could tick a number of valuable boxes, including layered content that enabled users to get more from their visit and, at the same time, provide high quality material for remote delivery.
There has been no shortage of coverage for the BYOD The COVID-19 crisis forced museums and galleries around the world to go virtual with their visitor experiences, relying on virtual tours, interactive applications and remote visits to entice museum fans and keep them engaged with their favourite cultural institutions.
Great for accessibility
However, the move towards more XR museum experiences didn’t begin with pandemic. For years now, we’ve been seeing an increase in the number of museums branching out their virtual services, and creating state of the art digital experiences for visitors to enjoy. One of the most publicised VR exhibitions – Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass – began months before the COVID-19 crisis in 2019.
Yet the XR movement is taking place alongside another, wider trend: Bring Your Own Devices, or BYOD. Beginning as a workplace movement, BYOD encourages organisations and establishments to pass the responsibility of providing devices to their staff or visitors.
In an office environment, this means business owners can allow staff to work on devices their familiar with, without having to fork out on expensive hardware for the team. In museums, it means creating XR experiences tailored for use on visitors’ own smartphones and tablets.
But how realistic is it to expect viable and engaging VR and AR experiences that operate on the average smartphone? Is technology up to the task? And, more importantly, are museums?
The growth in visitor experiences using visitors’ devices
BYOD XR experiences are not unheard of in museum circles. In fact, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the forced closures that came with it, many museums around the world have spent much of the last year developing virtual experiences for their audience to enjoy from home.
One such example comes from the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, whose ‘Crossing Lines’ virtual tour allowed visitors to navigate through a 3D virtual space with highlighted recommended works and a comprehensive audio guide. Other VR experiences to come out of lockdown involved contributions from users, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. This not only allowed users to explore virtual galleries, but also encouraged them to donate their own lockdown mementos and share their experiences.
On a wider scale, the Chile 360° gave users the opportunity to explore some of the most popular sites on Chile as a whole, including the Easter Island statues, the European Southern Observatory, and the Atacama Desert. The app was developed specifically for use on iOS and Android devices.
So the question here is perhaps not whether museums are capable of delivering BYOD experiences, but whether there will still be a demand for them in a post-lockdown museum landscape.
There are practical issues that museums will need to consider
Museums may have succeeded in providing lockdown virtual experiences for visitors, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that full scale BYOD exhibitions are guaranteed. There is a distinct difference in scale between the practical, necessary virtual tours created during lockdown, and the ambitious, large scale VR experiences we were seeing before the pandemic hit.
Take London’s Tate Modern as an example. Back in 2017/18, the UK museum launched a VR exhibit alongside their highly publicised Modigliani retrospective. Visitors were able to step inside a complete 3D replica of the artist’s Paris studio. Using the actual studio space as a template, the museum created a faithful replica of what the space would have looked like a century earlier.
These kinds of technical feats are unlikely to be seen on the average smartphone anytime soon, and once visitors return to the museum space itself for their XR fix, issues such as bandwidth will need to be taken into account. So even if museums aren’t required to invest in the hardware to digitalise their exhibits, they will still need to ensure they have the necessary connectivity.
AR thrives under BYOD, but VR may struggle
Where BYOD really thrives in AR, as opposed to VR. For several years now, we’ve seen stellar examples of AR utilising smartphone technology to huge success, both inside and outside the museum sector. Just look at Pokémon Go and the frenzy that caused back in 2016.
As the name suggests, augmented reality involves adding to or shifting one’s current surroundings, rather than creating a completely new setting to explore – as is the case with VR. Altering this tech to suit the capabilities of the average smartphone is a much more realistic goal than creating a fully realised VR experience.
VR does not lend itself easily to the BYOD movement. In order for it flourish in the long term, we will need to see significant advances in mobile phone capabilities, or return to the use of rented hardware. However, in a post-COVID society, this will come with its own considerations surrounding hygiene and social distancing. For now, it seems like large-scale VR will remain a rare yet impressive feat utilised by the institutions that can afford it.
About the author – Tim Deakin
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.