Stepping into the Virtual Reality Weekend Immersive Fulldome in the Great Court at the British Museum yesterday, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had read the press release for the event, and knew that I was about to experience a digital recreation of a 4,000 year-old bronze age roundhouse, complete with digitally scanned recreations of objects within the British Museum’s collections – but what form would this actually take?
Would we be able to walk around the space of the hut and interact with the objects? Would we be touching holograms in mid-air, pulling up dossiers of information about these obscure items, some of whose actual uses have been subject to debate since they were discovered? Would we be listening to the roundhouse, its hearth crackling, our footsteps padding along the packed mud floor? How would a group of five people be able to simultaneously experience such a thing? Had virtual reality technology made giant leaps since its much-touted debut for the general public in the early 1990s? With the impending arrival of the much-lauded quantum leap in home VR Oculus Rift, the possibility of this technology being adapted to the cultural heritage sector brings visions of deep, immersive experiences to mind, something the museum world sees as its potential saviour in terms of remaining relevant to audiences who, in many museum professionals’ minds, crave digital reality experiences much more than looking at old stuff in glass cases.
The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum uses, obviously, Samsung products, and as one of the leading technology companies in the world with a new generation of smartphones powered by a variation on Oculus Rift, expectations were relatively high for this first large-scale public VR museum event. Sadly, although the work involved in creating these displays was no doubt a massive undertaking, the Virtual Reality Weekend’s efforts at technological innovation and experiential learning seemed to take a back seat to security concerns and product placement.
There were three versions of the virtual roundhouse on display: the “immersive fulldome” (a spherical black tent about the size of a small double bedroom), the Samsung Gear VR Headset (goggles containing a Samsung smartphone attached to lime green headphones), and the Samsung Galaxy 10.1″ tablet. Upon entering the Great Court, visitors were greeted with large banners displaying photos of happy children holding Samsung tablets in front of their faces to merge their features with those of photographs of museum objects – which, in the current selfie-obsessed culture, would have been a massively entertaining activity, offering children the opportunity to more closely identify with figurative objects as relating to real people, rather than old irrelevant things crammed inside untouchable vitrines. However, the tablets containing the roundhouse VR were anchored to a small table in a roped-off area containing more staff members (in Samsung branded t-shirts) than visitors. The tablets couldn’t even be held: they were on pedestal stands locked into place. The content on them – a simple animation of the outside and inside of the roundhouse, as well as the scanned objects from the BM’s collections which, when touched, displayed a sentence of didactic text. This was essentially what is a now-typical museum app, displayed on a technology that is, to many segments of the BM’s audience, ubiquitous – which makes the fact that there was not a single person in the queue to use the tablets during the entire time I spent in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre all the more unsurprising. Placed onto the table much like an afterthought amongst the tablets were 3-D printed reproductions of the scanned objects which were able to be picked up and held, yet the staff did little to advertise their existence, and only one person during my visit seemed interested in engaging with them. Next to this table was the now practically cliché “tell us your story” wall, with visitors invited to write their reactions on post-it notes beneath photographs of the three reproduced objects. For all of the hype, rightly or wrongly, about constructivist learning in museums, it may be time to rethink this particular activity, perhaps merging it with more curated information in order to generate a stronger give-and-take approach that could help visitors make more valuable contributions.
Like the Galaxy Tablets, the Samsung Gear VR Headset was also in a roped-off area of the Great Court, at a table that could accommodate no more than five visitors at a time – and each VR Headset came with its own staff member, who helped the audience member put it on and learn to operate it. The headset is relatively simple, with a Samsung smartphone slid inside a pair of goggles with a touchpad on the right temple with which the user inputs simple controls for forward, back, clicking, and stopping. Like the tablet version of the roundhouse, the Gear VR Headset version included a flyby animation and an interior of the hearth with clickable objects. However, my headset was faulty, and since none of the didactics were interpreted as print onscreen and only as voiceover, I was able to glean no real educational value from the experience. Moving around the roundhouse was frustrating, and with only a five minute time limit in which to explore, I decided against asking for the system to be restarted to try to hear anything and just tried moving around. Once getting the hang of it, it became dull pretty quickly as there was very little inside the roundhouse to explore.
Finally, there was the Immersive Fulldome. As mentioned earlier, this was a black tent placed near the front of the Great Court’s main entrance, and as I arrived at the beginning of the morning, the sun was quite bright through the skylight. As my group and I were escorted inside the dome (five people could just fit inside standing in a straight line side by side – while two staff members stood in front of us and one behind), I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to see very much. The entire inside of the dome was white in order to present its video projection, and since the staff members refused to close the front curtain of the tent – most likely for health and safety issues – the bright light from the skylights completely washed out the dome projection, shattering any attempt at an immersive experience – although the graphics themselves, looking disturbingly similar to CD-ROM VR animation circa Myst, didn’t help matters much. Likewise, one of the staff members kept a running commentary about the technology of the system, how to operate the simple touch screen to choose objects, and the other options of the headset and the tablet to view the same material – rendering the small attempts at atmospheric sound design almost entirely inaudible. Again, there was almost no didactic explanation of the objects besides a single sentence read as voiceover – there wasn’t even an introductory voiceover explaining when or where this place was supposed to be, what the objects were, or why this was important to recreate as a virtual environment. Little to no attempt was made to educate, and once again the five minute time limit of the experience made individual exploration impossible.
At the end of my time in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, I was, unsurprisingly, asked to fill out a brief survey about the experience – a typical procedure used to evaluate visitor reaction to new initiatives in museums. Surprisingly, the very first question on the survey was:
Do you know which company sponsored today’s event?
Yes, museums have been impacted heavily by the economic crisis. Yes, museums need sponsors in order to make technological strides in the way they interact with their audiences. But this question hardly seems like one that is necessary for the museum staff, and rather appeared to be crassly included at the behest of Samsung in order to test how their brand recognition was being improved by this initiative. Perhaps if the organisers had cared more about their audience’s bronze age knowledge takeaway than the product placement, this experiment might have had a better chance at succeeding.
After my VR experience, I immediately left the Great Court and entered the Egyptian galleries to find a massive crowd of people in front of the Rosetta Stone’s display case, many people crushed against the glass, desperate for a few seconds’ glimpse of a mute piece of stone. Perhaps the future of museums doesn’t lie entirely within the digital realm – maybe it lies somewhere between the real and the virtual, somewhere that invites visitors to experience something that is, unlike the 19th century colonialist attitudes that spawned our contemporary museum enterprise in the first place, truly universal: the telling of compelling, resonant, legendary stories.
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