AR and VR offer a new view on the past

Museums are dabbling in virtual and augmented reality as part of a larger push for immersive, interactive experiences. As Tim Kridel found, that means plenty of opportunities for AV firms – and a few challenges.

Museums usually are where people go to peruse the past. But increasingly, they’re also places to see the future of AV technology – and with them, some emerging business opportunities. 

One example is the Brescia Museums, named after the sprawling archaeological site in Northern Italy. Using Epson’s Moverio augmented reality (AR) glasses, visitors can look at ruins and see 3D digital reconstructions of what they looked like in the Roman era. AR and other technologies have similar potential in other types of visitor attractions, such as science centres, so it’s worth looking at how, why and where museums are implementing them.

For instance, some museums see AR as a way to engage visitors in their facilities, with virtual reality (VR) as a separate effort to engage them offsite. A VR tour that people can experience at home could be useful for encouraging them to visit the museum for the first time, or for virtual field trips for students. 

“We’re not sure that VR is going to play a big role inside the museum as visitor experience thing,” says Doug Allen, CIO at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the US. “We view it more as a way for people to experience the museum from home.” 

Or occasionally vice-versa. A donor recently gave Nelson-Atkins a collection of impressionist paintings that will go into a gallery that opens in 2017. It did a VR recording of a curator in the donor’s home so people can get a preview of the paintings when they visit the museum. 

The content opportunity

Somebody has to create all of that AR and VR content, and many clients – not just museums – don’t have the budget, staff and resources to do it in house. One reason is because AR and VR are still relatively new, so their hardware and software haven’t had time to ride down the cost curve or become user friendly.

“The content-creation tools are not all that easy to use right now,” Allen says. “You typically have to contract a vendor and pay a fair amount.”

Some integrators already offer content-creation services to their digital signage clients, a strategy that could be adapted for AR/VR. That opportunity varies somewhat by client size.

“If a venue is outsourcing content creation, they are most likely working with advanced mobile development companies that are familiar with wearable technology and building 3D assets,” says Eric Mizufuka, Epson Moverio product manager for smart eyewear. “For example, vStream, an interactive content production company, is one of the most experienced integrators of high-end AR. 
“Large, well-funded venues typically create AR/VR content in house. Mid-size companies that may not have the same level of technical expertise or resources typically use specialty integrators or agencies for content development.” 

One such integrator is Holovis Attractions, whose Holovis Media team handles the creative and software aspects of a project for clients such as theme parks. They went so far as to develop In-Mo, a proprietary middleware technology to blend content and systems such as projection mapping, sets, digital assets and special effects.

“The new attraction frontier is VR/AR storytelling, which is why within the Media team we have a cell of VR/AR content specialists,” says Stuart Hetherington, CEO. “They are creating a rich, mixed reality (MR) environment where VR and AR dynamically combine in real time. MR allows the user to move freely and safely in an amazingly realistic virtual space, whilst integrating with real world objects that appear to have a life of their own.” 

That’s the kind of experience Nelson-Atkins is considering. It would go beyond many of today’s smartphone-enabled AR applications, where users have to find an icon for information to pop up.

“I have high hopes for a tool like Magic Leap or HoloLens where I’m not holding up a phone as I’m walking through the museum,” Allen says. “I’m wearing a light – hopefully light – headset, and maybe it gives me directions for wayfinding and provides additional information. I might be able to look at a period room and see people in costume interacting.” 

For integrators, creating the kinds of experiences their clients envision often isn’t easy.

“AR/VR are in their infancy, and at this moment there is only one commercially available VR headset,” says Michel Buchner, Tinker imagineers creative technologist. “The difficulty is the single-user experience. 

“For an international client, we’re busy implementing an installation with five VR headsets. It’s a really difficult process because the technology is really unbroken ground, and companies like Oculus VR are too busy with the consumer launch and not replying to information requests from the industry.”

All of these challenges don’t necessarily mean smaller AV firms can’t be successful. Just the opposite.

“AV integrators in general should be prepared to investigate new ideas and pick up unproven technology that’s slightly out of the daily scope,” Buchner says. “The smaller AV integrators tend to be more flexible, inquisitive and specialised, where the bigger companies have problems to keep up.”

DOMunder archaeological visitor experience under the Domplein Square Utrecht. Photographer Mike Bink

Enabling big data and analytics

Big data is another emerging opportunity, as museums and other attractions seek more insights into their visitors’ behaviour. For example, an integrator could pitch a surveillance system not just for security, but also to collect information about how visitors interact with exhibits. Some integrators already offer such double-duty applications in retail, where the surveillance system helps nab shoplifters while also gathering information such as how people make their way through the store.

Integrators also could help museums and other visitor attractions make sense of that information. Indeed, some firms are already eyeing that opportunity for a variety of verticals.

"Large, well-funded venues typically create AR/VR content in house."

“We identified big data and analytics will be a significant part of our value proposition moving forward,” Julian Phillips, Whitlock executive vice president, told InAVate earlier this year.

Some AV firms already offer Wi-Fi design and installation. That technology is maturing in ways that museums could use to collect big data.

For example, modern access points (APs) can record the MAC addresses of visitors’ phones. That enables a museum to know every time they return and their paths through the museum. This information could be used to identify galleries that are lightly trafficked and, if changes are made, whether those galleries now attract more people.  

“All of those things are going to be available even if I don’t have people sign up [for free Wi-Fi], tell us who they are or anything,” says Allen, whose museum is preparing to replace a few hundred APs that are almost a decade old. 

Asking visitors to register to get free Wi-Fi access, or when they download an AR app, could yield additional insights, because now those devices can be associated with a person. An example is whether a certain number of repeat visits indicates a tipping point when people typically decide to become members. 

“That’s when I think analytics become really valuable,” Allen says. 

The wow factor

Whether it’s AR/VR or something else, museums are increasing their use of AV technology. Sometimes it’s to deliver a wow factor to attract and retain patrons, particularly younger demographics. 

“We see a rising awareness in the use of AV,” Buchner says. “The way we communicate and absorb information is rapidly changing. The industry is therefore looking for new means to engage with their audience.”

As a result, some AV technologies that used to be the domain of concerts and other major events are being adapted for museums.

“The keywords of this transformation are ‘immersiveness’ and ‘experience,’” Buchner says. “Overall we see an increase in the use of media servers in combination with large-scale (projection/LED) canvasses. Think of large dome projections, room-wide, multi-projector setups or an 18-wide and 8m deep projection pit, to give a view on the earth, sometimes interactive.” 

One example of a large-scale system is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which has a 4K Christie MicroTile video wall consisting of 117 tiles. It’s powered by a Christie Vista Spyder video processor with multiple HD outputs and supports unrestricted blending, mixing and scaling.

“Large, high-resolution video walls provide incredible details,” says Paul Leach, director of marketing at Ford AV, the project’s integrator. “Adding cameras and third-party software can produce memorable experiences for young and old. 

“One real-life example is a visitor walking up to the wall while an avatar tracks with them. Butterflies all fly in and land on them as they continue to interact with the avatar of themselves.” 

The trick to pulling off those kinds of innovative experiences is making sure all of the right people are involved from day one.

“Some of the challenges include the collaboration required between the museum, content providers, AV integrator, and consultants,” Leach says. “Unlike many AV systems, the museum is creating something that is hopefully unique and unlike any other story/experience. So it is critical that a strong team of both creatives, engineers and integrators/contractors work together from the very beginning to ensure the idea turns into a functional reality."

Tinker has similar advice. 

“Doing challenging and potentially ‘risky’ projects requires a pioneering mindset from client, integrator and the creative agency,” Buchner says. “Before a project gets the green light, all parties must agree
on the undeniable fact that we’ll face serious challenges, setbacks and that we will make compromises. 

“I have high hopes for a tool like Magic Leap or HoloLens where I’m not holding up a phone as I’m walking through the museum.”
“Be sure to create a realistic time frame and allocate some of the budget for contingencies to cover for the inevitable. The rest is all about trust and communication. Be prepared to invest time in miniaturisation or to simulate to proof the concept in 3D.”

But roughly how much time? 

“A short, tightly defined project will take approximately six months, whereas a larger, full-scale attraction can take from 12 to 18 months for inception to opening,” says Holovis’ Hetherington. “We are currently working with one of the largest attraction brands in the world in reimagining an existing facility to become a completely new MR experience showcasing some very exciting, globally recognised IP.”

Fears of tech overshadowing the art

The showier that AV systems get, the bigger the risk that they’ll distract from the art. 

“We don’t want the undeniably fascinating electronic and technical advances around us to dominate the museum space, particularly with historic (i.e., anything before the last 10 years or so) artworks,” says Dan Crompton, AV service manager at the Tate galleries in the UK. “Equally we don’t want our galleries to be old fashioned and fusty dusty.”

That concern creates yet another challenge for AV firms: Identify emerging technologies that museums can use to attract and retain visitors, but do it in ways that don’t steal their art’s thunder – and make it all come together in ways that no one has done before. 

“The biggest challenge is working with the current, almost vertical new technology curve,” Hetherington says. “Better systems, higher resolutions greater processing power are always just around the corner. And very few players really understand VR/AR storytelling. What we do know is VR/AR can make a museum come alive in ways that a few years ago would have seemed science fiction.”

Detailed Q&As with some of the experts interviewed for this feature can be found below:
Stuart Hetherington, Holovis
Michel Buchner, Tinker Imagineers
Eric Mizufuka, Epson 

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