Why Museums and Heritage sites should embrace Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is currently experiencing a spectacular renaissance. The concept itself is nothing new; researchers and entrepreneurs have been exploring the subject for several decades now, with varying degrees of success. The website “The Verge” even put out a fascinating article recently on the chaotic saga of virtual reality entitled: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality.

Since 2013, however, significant advances have been made. Innovators such as Oculus, and more recently Google, with “Cardboard”, are about to make virtual reality a household name—and this time for good, or so it seems.

There’s a simple explanation for this: virtual reality technology is now more accessible because prices have literally plummeted. With the arrival of Google Cardboard, a cardboard box that costs less than $10 is all it takes to transform any smartphone into a virtual reality device. And if you’re feeling especially luxurious, you can purchase a plastic version for only $60 :)

Accessible technologies will completely transform the way Virtual Reality is used

Simple, but no less remarkable, the little magic box was born in Google’s Paris offices, thanks to two engineers: David Coz and Damien Henry. Inspired by the Durovis Dive headset, the box took center stage in June 2014 at Google’s annual I/O developers conference. Since then, Google Cardboard apps crossed 15 million downloads. Last month, the New York Times sent a million Cardboards to its subscribers, giving them access to exclusive content. This is just the beginning of the trend, and it promises to be phenomenal.

We are entering an era in which not only visualization technologies like Cardboard will become prolific, but we will also see an increase in software and hardware like Jump, Giroptic or even the Cardboard Camera application, which simplify the creation of VR enabled content. Such technologies will completely transform the way virtual reality is used, much like smartphones revolutionized the way we use photo and video.

A fantastic tool for teleporting a visitor… during his or her visit!

Here at GuidiGO, we’ve been looking into these technologies for over a year. The idea was to explore different uses for virtual reality that would enrich the experience of visiting museums and historical sites in addition to existing interpretive content. We hosted several “hackathons” on site to test new concepts and create prototypes for new interfaces. After a few surprises, and lots of fun (it takes a bit of time for the brain to adjust to sensations it’s not used to!) several fascinating possibilities emerged. In the end, we all reached the same conclusion: virtual reality would be a fantastic tool for teleporting a visitor… during his or her visit! “What’s the point of teleporting a visitor?” you might ask, “Why not let the visitor simply enjoy whatever is on display, in real life, with his or her own eyes?” We believe both experiences are fully compatible. Imagine the following scenarios for just a moment (some of which are already available):

  • You are in a gallery at a Natural History museum, looking at the skeleton of a Triceratops. Suddenly, the animal comes to life, transporting you to the Cretaceous period. And there to your right, look out! Behind you, even above your head…enormous dinosaurs are moving all around you. You suddenly feel very small.
  • You are visiting a museum on the history of aviation. How would you like to take the control wheel of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis in your hands? You’re surrounded by the cockpit, the pilot seat, the control panel, and all of the instruments—just as if you were really there. In front of you, the sky and clouds fly by.
  • You are visiting a World War I battle site, and there you are in the muddy trenches, listening to the sounds of war, as soldiers move about, telling you about their daily experiences and fears.
  • You are visiting the Empire State Building. How would you like to experience the atmosphere of the construction site when this legendary skyscraper was being built? Around you, men are working on the beams, while 1930s New York spreads out below your feet. We hope you’re not afraid of heights!

These are only a few examples, of course. Each site will be free to come up with whatever is most likely to make their visitor experience particularly memorable: explore the temple where an ancient statue was originally located; visit the reconstruction of a site that no longer exists (Pompeii, the Bastille prison, etc.); discover a place closed off to the public (the Lascaux caves, the Oval Office, etc.)

Virtual Reality takes the visitor to the heart of an immersive sensory experience

Art museums will be no exception. Virtual reality is also capable of teleporting you into Renoir’s studio, or into Monet’s gardens at Giverny. You’ll be able to observe artists as they work, or hear them tell you about their masterpieces. You may also soon be able to experience artwork made up of both real and virtual components – or even be transported straight into a painting or the visual universe of its creator (e.g., Van Gogh’s universe)… because admit it, we’re not the only ones who have thought about passing through the canvas! Soon you’ll be able to explore a work from the inside, and brush shoulders with its characters. Here’s your chance to attend, along with all the glamorous spectators, the coronation of Napoleon or the Marriage at Cana :)

Another fun and educational use for virtual reality is to let the visitor “walk” through a life sized timeline in order to situate a work in its historical and artistic context.

There’s a strong chance this new paradigm will be an important influence on the scenography of museums. It’s easy to imagine a few virtual reality headsets taking the place of more cumbersome installations. The headsets could even be connected to one another to allow a group to simultaneously share the same experience.

Virtual reality is still evolving, but one thing is sure: the possibilities are infinite. Not only does it allow us to travel in time and space, but it also opens up imaginary dimensions that would be inaccessible without it, like the most intimate aspects of a work of art. Virtual reality takes the visitor to the heart of an immersive sensory experience that is extremely stimulating to the imagination and memory, allowing you to form a deep connection with the place you are visiting.

On the same subject: “Virtual Reality has arrived at GuidiGO!”

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