An introduction to immersive technology for museums

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An overview of immersive technologies | Where do I start? | Audiences | Accessibility | Can we make our own? | List of further reading suggestions

An overview of immersive technologies

There is some debate around what actually counts as ‘immersive technology’, but broadly speaking it is an experience that extends or replaces the physical space – usually ‘immersing’ a person either fully or partially in another environment, or adding something to their existing environment.

You will come across quite a few acronyms within immersive technology, the main four are outlined below.

Virtual Reality (VR)

image of boy wearing a virtual reality headset

Virtual reality is where a user is fully immersed in a digital environment using a headset, which has two displays – one for each eye. You can walk around in VR, move your head to look around, hear audio, interact with other people and ‘things’ in the virtual space – but it’s important to note that not all VR experiences do all of these things (depending on the aim of the experience and the budget, etc.). Check out some sector examples below:

Augmented Reality (AR)

person using an iPad alongside an augmented reality app.

If you’ve ever used a social media face filter, you’ve used augmented reality. AR involves the user looking through a smartphone or tablet camera to see virtual assets appear in or layer over their existing environment. It is widely believed that AR is the future of mainstream immersive technology due to its flexibility and accessibility through phones and tablets, which many consumers are already familiar with and will bring with them (so there’s a hygiene element here to consider as well). For examples, see:

Mixed Reality (MR)

bearded man wearing mixed reality glasses

The best way to think of Mixed Reality is that it sits somewhere between AR and VR. Similar to VR, MR involves a headset but these headsets allow you to view your existing environment with virtual assets overlayed which you can interact with. Check out the below for some examples:

XR

Just to make things confusing, XR is intended as an umbrella acronym that encompasses all of the above terms. 

There are also other types of immersive technology, which are perhaps less well-known than the above:

Haptics

The best way to describe haptic technology is thinking about the vibrations your smartphone makes when it rings or you use certain applications – giving you feedback as you interact. These vibrations can be programmed into all kinds of things; backpacks to be worn during VR experiences (as seen in the haptic vests at RAF Museum Hendon which mimic the ‘roar of the Lancaster’s Merlin engines’), chairs whilst listening to music, and gloves which can be worn to make you feel like you are interacting with objects that are not physically there.

360

360 video is a film that has been captured using a 360 camera (which are cheaper to buy than you might think). They can be used on VR headsets to fully immerse the user, although you are limited by always viewing the space from the standpoint from which it was filmed. They can also be uploaded to YouTube, which has the capacity for 360 films where people can click and drag their mouse to navigate (see this 360 video of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada).

Chatbots

You may be familiar with ‘Alexa’ or ‘OK, Google’ – these are chatbots. Chatbots are also the computer-generated instant messengers that appear on some websites. They are a type of artificial intelligence programme that can simulate a conversation with a user either through text or voice (check out Cornwall Museums Partnership’s new way to explore audio archives via chatbot, called Cornish Tales).

Where do I start?

The number one piece of advice when working with immersive technologies (and also an important way to not get overwhelmed by all of the rapidly advancing options) is to start with your stories, not the tech. Immersive technology should be another tool in your interpretation toolkit, to be utilised when immersive technology is the most appropriate and useful answer.

Immersive can be very useful in engaging audiences with stories that may not be able to be told through collections or traditional interpretation methods. For example, if there is a place or area that no longer exists, virtual reality can bring it back to life for someone to walk around. If there is a piece of archaeology that is difficult to imagine in its former life, augmented reality can project what it used to look like just above the artefact.

Immersive technology offers an immersive and interactive experience that can engage audiences in a way that traditional methods can’t. But immersive can also be used in other departments – in marketing campaigns, for collections management, community outreach, and more. With its growing prevalence and all of the opportunities it presents, immersive shouldn’t sit within one department or team – it should be part of everyone’s CPD.

Audiences

Unsurprisingly, initially there was a belief that immersive experiences would attract and engage younger audiences. Although this can be the case, younger people often have high expectations of immersive technology due to having used it before through at-home gaming, VR cafes, etc. According to Audience of the Future’s ‘The Immersive Audience Journey’ report, the jury is still out as to whether immersive audiences are new audiences. The key recommendation is that museums need to analyse how well an immersive experience fits with their identified ‘target audience’s motivations, preferences, and demographics’. 

The exciting possibility for immersive experiences are that technologies such as AR and VR can collate their own data about what audiences have interacted with, for how long, track eye movements, and other data. This opens up real possibilities for evaluating immersive experiences in ways not previously possible.

Accessibility

On top of improved capabilities for evaluation, immersive technology also offers the opportunity to make our experiences more accessible – if carefully designed. Technologies such as Voice User Interfaces enable users to give commands using their voice rather than a keyboard or touchscreen (check out this article about multi-modal access to exhibits on Calvium’s website), VR is now being used to open up spaces that are difficult to access physically (see Geevor Tin Mine’s Virtual Reality Tour of a mine), and the potential of haptics is being explored to enable blind and partially-sighted visitors to engage with museum objects and art (for example at Prague National Gallery). 

There is one note of caution with the move towards encouraging visitors to use their own devices to engage with AR experiences, or relying on experiences accessed online. This has the potential to deepen the digital divide between audience members and so careful consideration should be taken into the design of the experience – perhaps by providing devices for users to borrow or choosing another form of technology that doesn’t require bringing your own.

Can we make our own?

A great place to start if you want to have a go at making your own immersive experience, is Spark AR. Spark AR is owned by Facebook and enables you to create your own AR face filters with or without coding, with a library of free assets and tutorials. You can then publish to Instagram and Facebook for audiences to use. The Museums Immersive Network created a short series of YouTube videos to guide you through the process. 

Most other immersive experiences will require substantial technical knowledge to build so it is best to find a tech partner or university who has the expertise to do this (The Museums Immersive Network ran a ‘Collaborating with Confidence’ webinar and Immerse UK work to support new connections with tech partners and universities innovating in immersive technology). Many of them are keen to work with the amazing collections and stories museums have, so this puts us in a great position for building fruitful collaborations.

List of further reading suggestions

Museum Next’s summary of how museums are using immersive technology

More information about the Museums Immersive Network and how to join

Culture Geek article on the potential of VR for museums

The Audience of the Future Report ‘The Immersive Audience Journey’, on audience insights and perspectives on immersive art, culture, and entertainment

Advrtas page on what is immersive tech and how to use it (with a particularly good section on utilising immersive tech for marketing)

PWC’s ‘Seeing is Believing’ Report on how AR and VR will transform business and the economy

Ultraleap’s blog post on what haptics is 

‘The Ultimate Guide to Chatbots’ by Drift