September 25, 2016 Anna Lowe

How will augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) transform museums?

Along with the digital department of almost every museum this is a question we’re thinking about a lot at SMARTIFY as we build a new platform for audience engagement with art. But perhaps it’s time to flip the question and ask, how will museums transform augmented and virtual worlds?

Before explaining what I mean, a good starting place for the discussion is the excellent blog by the Maui Innovation Hub at Te Papa Museum. The article sets out some sensible reasons why AR/VR technologies may either keep visitors away from physical museums (those who prefer to sit on their sofa) or create new visitors (those who could be enticed by new forms of museum content). If you’re still not quite sure of the differences between augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality, the article explains it very clearly here.

Part of the reason there is suddenly so much interest in AR/VR in museums is the large amount of investment in the technology hardware by industry leaders Google, Apple, Microsoft, HTC/Valve and Sony. In the next couple of years all smartphones will be equipped with advanced AR and VR capabilities, and the market is set to be worth £150bn by 2020. To give you some practical examples, in the future we will probably walk around a flat viewing it in VR before renting, or hover phones over IKEA flatpacks to watch the assembly instructions. Industry experts actually predict augmented reality will replace computers – allowing us to work, watch films and share information at any moment (think Tom Cruise, Minority Report screens).

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Marc Shoffman gets a virtual tour of the Fulham Reach development

If these predictions prove correct, the virtual world will be the next major arena for content creation and media. The problem though, is that high cost and lack of skills has meant most AR/VR content currently being made is from large brands for advertising purposes (e.g. Coca-Cola) or commercial companies such as Pokémon Go and Snapchat.

Artist and film maker Keiichi Matsuda recently released a short film exploring a possible augmented reality future where the city becomes saturated with media and advertising. Although an exaggerated vision, the film gives you a sense of what a virtual world might feel like if it was only inhabited by brands. Watch it here.

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Still from Hyper-Reality, Keiichi Matsuda, 2016

So getting back to my question – how will museums transform the augmented and virtual worlds?

In the physical public realm, museums and arts organisations are some of the few places in the urban environment free from commercialization. Museums are open spaces built for the contemplation of humanity and its culture. They also hold a civic responsibility to remain accessible and support public wellbeing and community cohesion.

As digital and physical blend, there is nothing to suggest humans will be better stewards of VR/AR technology than we currently are of TV or the Internet – it will be just as wonderful and just as awful. I believe museums, and arts organisations have a civic role to play in using VR/AR creatively and helping us avoid Matsuda’s dystopian vision.

Te Papa’s blog comments that when it comes to AR/VR in museums, ‘a great looking experience is not enough’. Museums are the ultimate storytellers, holding the whole of human history and culture within their walls. Museum professionals need to start thinking about how these precious collections will be brought further into the public realm, bringing transformation and provocation to an augmented and virtual world.

Final links

Back in 2008, a Dutch artist Julian Oliver created the ‘Artevisor’ a set of goggles that would replace adverts with artworks. He calls this ‘improved reality’. Here

SMARTIFY partnered with The City of London Corporation and Sculpture in the City to add augmented reality information about public sculptures in London’s square mile financial district. Here

SMARTIFY at Sculpture in the City 2016. Axis Mundi, Jürgen Partenheimer, 2014

by Anna Lowe

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