The Impact of VR on the Future of Museums
Museums are normally considered as the providers/indicators of the past, but in the view of Alex Benay, president and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, they might be better off as tech pioneers.
“I’m not a traditionalist,” said Benay. “The concept here is using things like virtual reality, open data, anything that gets the story out … whether it’s raw or filtered, [it] means engagement.”
VR and AR in Museums
A virtual-reality (VR) simulation of the 1936 CN 6400 steam locomotive, acquired by the Canada Science and Technology Museum in 1967 is the first test of Benay’s approach. The train is one of the top attractions at the museum.
Visitors to the museum, which is currently closed for renovations, will step into a six-foot-long by six-foot-high box, put on an Oculus Rift headset and begin “operating” the train in 4-D, accompanied with surround sound, air cannons shooting steam into their face and a quaking floor beneath their feet. Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, was one of the first to try it on April 20 in Ottawa, where she tested a beta version. The museum is due to reopen to the public sometime in 2017 in time for the Canada 150 celebration.
The VR scenario was designed by SimWave, an Ottawa-based tech company that is also developing a Vimy Ridge virtual-reality experience for the Canadian War Museum, due for release in 2017 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the battle.
“You can go and look at the train, but if you get to live the experience … that’s a better emotional home run for a visitor,” Benay said. He added that anyone can drive the train from home with their own VR headset. “[The] visitor can be anywhere in the country, or the world,” he said. “Attendance as a measure of success is outdated.”
However, not everyone in the museum community necessarily shares this thinking.
Impact of Technology on Museums
According to Mark Keating, chief information officer at the Royal Ontario Museum: “Everything we do … is to bring people into the museum.” He believes tech is supplemental to a museum’s focus on education, and that bringing people into the physical space of a museum is an essential part of the museum experience.
“We’re really conscious of making sure we don’t change the traditional museum experience,” Keating said. “Less gamification, more educational, that’s where we want to go.”
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) does feature augmented reality technology at their Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit, which superimposes a digital dinosaur over ancient fossils. The user can then take a picture, which can be shared via e-mail.
Although there’s no firm plan to incorporate virtual reality at the ROM, there’s still a lot of enthusiasm for what the tech is capable of.
“What makes VR exciting,” Cheryl Fraser, manager of ROM’s online properties explains, “is that we are a provincial museum, and it gives us an opportunity to do some outreach and reach some of these communities that don’t have access to our galleries.”
The director of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, Costis Dallas, believes technology has the ability to enhance museums but also shares concerns over potential pitfalls.
“The dystopian scenario would be one in which museums … become shallower,” he said. “Some people, very rightfully, describe museums as places … that can be [an] oasis from this world where we are bombarded with information.”
Benay, doesn’t believe these concerns are shared by the next generation.
“Maybe we need to stop looking at exhibitions as the only way for a museum to engage,” he said. “Maybe we should stop talking about attendance to these exhibitions as the measure for success.”
Benay points out that tech is not just a supplement to museums, rather, it is a big part of their future: “We haven’t found anybody else that’s thinking this way right now [about VR exhibits]. Which means we’re either completely out to left field, or we’re on to something. I like to think we’re on to something.”