Tuesday, 11 July 2017

VIRTUALLY EFFECTIVE: TOP 3 CONCERNS WITH USING VIRTUAL REALITY AS AN INTERPRETIVE VEHICLE

MUSEUM INNOVATIONS

BY: HANNAH MONKMAN

In trying to innovate or even just to stay relevant, museums often look to the latest technology to reach their goals. Personally, I love the idea of using virtual reality (VR) as a vehicle of interpretation in museums (noting that yes, virtual reality and augmented reality are different). I believe VR could be used to effectively immerse the visitor in a new environment and provide another level of engagement in an exhibit. Eager to see this in practice, I recently visited two museums in London, ON that both featured VR options in their exhibits through the use of an Oculus Rift.

Roadtrip!! Source.

The first museum I visited was the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum (RCRM), which included a VR experience that takes you into the Battle at Vimy Ridge. Unfortunately, I couldn't get this experience to workwhether the machine was broken, turned off, or the instructions on how to use it were simply unclear, it was definitely a disappointing moment of the visit. The second museum was the Museum of Ontario Archaeology (MOA), which featured a VR longhouse that visitors can explore.


The virtual reality booth with Oculus Rift headset at the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum. Photo courtesy of Hannah Monkman. 

These experiences emphasized some of the risks involved with using high-tech of any sort in an museum environment, and helped inform my understanding of using tech in museums. Here's a rundown of what I learned:

1. Digital technology generally requires specialized maintenance, and staff must be trained to troubleshoot any issues with the tech (especially if the creation of the tech was contracted to external companies). Whether that means simply turning it off and then on again, or fixing broken components, interactive components of displays should be working as often as possible. I visited the RCRM specifically to see the VR exhibit and was frustrated when it did not work. I felt that it was more disappointing to see the cool tech and then have it not work, than if they had not included the tech at all. If you don't have staff on hand who knows (or can learn) how to care for the outsourced tech, perhaps consider a less complex option.

Sometimes dealing with technology isn't as difficult as it may seem. Source.

2. Consider the ethical implications of your VR experience. The psychological impact and ethics related to virtual reality have not been studied much yet at this point. However, concerns have been voiced about the implications of inhabiting a virtual body along with the realistic levels of immersion VR experiences can offer. While I did not get to try the VR at the Regiment Museum, I do know that the experience takes the user to the front lines of the battle. Especially since the experience was designed specifically for grade school students, I question the ethics of such an experience—not that it will negatively affect all users, of course, but that it has the potential to do so since the explosions and gunshots are allegedly very realistic. The effects could be minimal, or be on opposite sides of the spectrum as the users become either desensitized to violence or traumatized in extreme cases due to their experience. Placing the user in the position of a soldier in a 4D virtual reality experience is very different from learning the content in other formats.

If simply watching a movie can affect how we perceive things like war, how would "living" it through VR affect us? Source.

3. Museums often have a habit of using tech for tech's sake—but this can be an ineffective way to engage your visitors. Before committing large amounts of resources to tech like VR, ask yourself: what is this adding to the exhibit? What am I trying to convey with this, and is it actually effective to use VR to do so? The virtual reality at MOA was interesting experience in VR, but less interesting in terms of the content. Walking through a longhouse and picking up objects within a 5 minute time limit provided no additional information for me, especially when physical longhouses were outside on museum grounds. Despite initially thinking that 5 minutes was not a very long time, I found myself running out of things to do or explore in the experience before it was over. After I finished, I found myself thinking, "Why is this here?" Especially since there was a small additional fee to use the VR here, it is definitely in the museum's best interest to make the visitor think it was worth it—whether they paid a few extra dollars or simply paid with their time.

So, while I stand firmly in the position that VR could be used as an incredibly effective way of interpreting content and engaging the visitor, museums have to be careful that they're not using technology like virtual reality "just because." Rather, it should be used because its unique qualities add something that couldn't be attained by another interpretive vehicle. Instead of chasing after the newest technologies, museums should focus on the interpretive potential and the resulting visitor experience when considering how to make exhibits innovative.

tldr; virtual reality has great innovative potential, but only with careful thought about the risks and benefits of using the technology. As long as you think it through and can justify using the tech, VR could be a great option for your museum.

With thorough consideration, you can definitely "follow your dreams" in innovative pursuits. Source.

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