Virtual reality (VR) technology has the potential to help museums to create immersive experiences for their patrons to experience exhibitions and collections. Integrating this technology within the framework of museums helps takes visitors to other worlds and history eras, often offering a more vivid and enjoyable experience. Some museums might lack space for certain exhibitions or shows, and virtual reality enables them to use their limited space for large exhibitions. In addition, some exhibitions require simulating an environment that can only be created by VR. All the benefits above can be attained using virtual reality, but what are the available VR hardware devices and which ones should museums utilize?
Before deciding which virtual reality hardware museums should use, managers should take into consideration several factors. Investing in virtual reality is both time consuming and has significant financial implications; this means that planning is very important for such decisions. The museum should decide why they need virtual reality. How will it be used? And what for; is it only for exhibitions or for other activities as well? Which departments will use virtual reality—education or exhibitions? In addition do they have the financial capacity and the staff to implement and maintain the VR hardware?
VR Hardware Options
The following headsets are all options for museums interested in implementing VR. They vary by budget, purpose.
Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset that displays 3D imagery once plugged into a computer or USB. According to the Oculus website the cost of the headset is $599. Oculus describes the experience of using the Rift as such: “The magic of presence changes everything. You’ve never experienced immersion like this.” Oculus Rift is a popular VR headset that gamers are particularly keen on. The design of this headset provides comfort and ventilation to the user and also responds to the head turns of its users. This type of headset could be used for virtual cultural heritage experiences. For instance, visitors can change the entire collection in which they are immersed by pressing a button.
Another option is the HTC Vive which has 360 degree head tracking features, allowing the user to interact and move in virtual space. The HTC Vive is a bit more costly than the Rift, coming in at $799. According to Free Fly VR “you cannot just look around with these VR glasses, but you are invited to walk through a room.” This VR headset requires more space, and this can be an obstacle in some museums with small facilities. Though the headset is smaller than its prototype version (and is more comfortable), in comparison with the beautifully designed Oculus Rift, this headset is focused on functionality rather than form.
Samsung introduced Gear VR headsets, which are powered by Oculus Rift and utilize Samsung Galaxy smartphones. This type of headset was used by the British Museum in their exhibition Bronze Age Settlement. This device provided visitors with a chance to visit the Bronze Age and enjoy artifacts of that period. Exhibitions like this, which create an immersive 3D environment, can contribute to a museum’s mission of conserving heritage. The cost of the device is only $99, but you need Samsung Galaxy smartphones in order to use the headset.
Google Cardboard is considered one of the simplest and cheapest virtual reality experiences. Cardboard was developed as an accessible VR tool to allow everyone to use VR in a simple, fun, and natural way. The American Museum of Natural History partnered with Google to provide students with virtual reality tours using the device. In addition, Google Cardboard can be easily built by anyone; museums can create educational activities that teach students and adults to make these devices and use them to explore the museum.
Online Virtual Touring
Another way to integrate virtual reality is through connecting people to the museum in the online world. Museums can provide a platform for online visitors that enable them to experience 360-degree tours within museums while sitting in their own homes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art used Java technology in their sites “to deliver a cutting-edge plug-in- free interactive experience to any visitor with a java-enabled browser and a 28.8 baud or faster Internet connection.” In addition to some museums providing this option on their websites, museums can also join www.virtualfreesites.com with boasts over 300 museums that you can tour virtually.
When integrating virtual reality in museums, managers should take into account the reasons behind using virtual reality, the behaviors of their audience, their own technical capabilities and financial abilities. These hardware devices can all be used by museums, but the decision must be based on their exact needs. As Virtual Reality devices continue to be developed and launched, museums should always keep up to date on new trends.