Research Update: Augmented Reality in Museums

Augmented Reality, also known as AR, provides a live view of a real world environment with elements that are augmented by computer-generated images. Generally speaking, AR applications for smartphones usually include GPS (Global Positioning System) to pinpoint the user’s location and detect device orientation by using the compass. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which provides an entire artificial environment, AR makes use of the existing environment and overlays new information on top of it. It blurs the line between the reality and the computer-generated information by enhancing what we see, hear, feel and smell.

Pokémon GO, the popular game released by Niantic Inc. in the summer of 2016, is a great example of how location-based AR has transformed the gaming experience. Not only AR has found its place in gaming – it also has become a novel medium that offers new layers of interpretation to museum collections. According to the 2012 Mobile in Museums Study, 1% museums in the United States have started embarking on AR as a mobile feature.

AR is an attractive medium for use in museums because digital databases challenge existing archives with obsolescence, and the ever-growing tide of digital information can be reconciled with traditional, physical databases through the promise of AR.
— Geoffrey Alan Rhodes, Filmmaker, Assistant Professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Museums are experimenting with location-based AR apps both in and out of the exhibition space. A recent example is the Chicago 00 Project, a partnership between the Chicago History Museum and filmmaker Geoffrey Alan Rhodes. The newly developed “Chicago 00 The Eastland Disaster” app offers a customized AR tour. As the users walk along the Chicago river walk between Clark and LaSalle Streets, a gallery of images appear, allowing users to experience the story of the disaster viscerally.

A lot more museums are using AR apps or apps with AR feature as an engagement tool inside exhibition spaces. For instance, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's AR app -"Skins & Bones", exposed the story behind the skeletons using AR.

Some museums have not created AR apps by themselves, but have utilized free AR apps developed by technology companies in order to attract and engage visitors in temporary exhibitions. In early 2016 at the “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” Exhibition, Seattle Art Museum utilized the Layar AR app so that visitors could enjoy a free AR smartphone experience. 

Living in a digital age, people have already been accustomed to holding up their smartphone and other mobile devices to take pictures. Thus, scanning an AR object with the device can easily fit into the museum experience. AR apps allow museum visitors to gain information in a more convenient, efficient and entertaining way. AR tools offer museum visitors the ability to deploy their own smartphones as pocket-size screens through which surrounding spaces become a stage for endless extra layers of information. In addition, comparing with the widely used QR codes scanning mobile feature in the museums, which usually is a manual tracking system, the AR feature on museum apps work with automated image recognition to scan real world objects.

For museums that are willing to embrace the technology trend, developing an appropriate kind of AR app can be a way to achieve various organizational goals. AR can be an expensive and challenging technology for museums, but it is well worth the effort. We can expect that AR may soon become a standard, so those who are early adopters of the technology will be rewarded for their foresight. In the coming months, I will review case studies on museums that have used AR apps inside their exhibition spaces, and provide guidelines for how to choose an appropriate AR app for a museum.