Museums enrich their visitors’ lives by providing insight into their chosen subject matter. Whether that’s the history of a particular region, some scientific principle, an artistic tradition, or anything else, museums engage by leveraging their collections and assembling exhibits that immerse visitors in the subject.

But in doing so, museums constantly wrestle with significant constraints:

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Limited Floor Space. When planning an exhibit, any museum has to make difficult choices about which pieces to display. There’s rarely room for every piece in a collection, however important or relevant it might be.

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Operational Practicality. While experts agree that hands-on interaction is incredibly engaging and pedagogically valuable, it requires more maintenance, support, and supervision than static displays.

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Geographic Location. Whether a museum is located in a major tourist city or a small suburban town, the people it can engage are – by definition – limited to those in its local surroundings. Even if its potential or target audience is far broader, it is very hard for museums to engage people far away.

To be clear, these constraints will always exist to some extent. But virtual reality reduces them, thereby giving museums the ability to deepen engagement and widen their audiences.

Virtual Reality: An Immersive Experience

When we talk about virtual reality, we’re talking about truly immersive VR that has to be experienced to be understood. You put on a headset, and you are instantly teleported to a virtual environment:

The technology quite literally fools your brain into thinking it is someplace it is not.

The technology for this is brand new, with 2016 seeing the first-ever consumer release of high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PlayStation VR. While “VR” using mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) had been available a little earlier, these new headsets go far beyond passive 360-degree video experiences by offering near photo-realistic image quality and allowing users to interact with the virtual world as they would the real one: With their hands.

High-end VR headsets that immerse their users in seamless, digital, all-encompassing environments give museums the opportunity to create brand new spaces – without the need for major capital campaigns or years-long construction efforts.

Going Beyond the Floor Space

When planning an exhibit, how many times have you said: “I wish we could display X”?

All museums have pieces in their collections that are important and relevant. And yet, many are relegated to storage for reasons of either space or conservation.

Virtual reality lets you use however much floor space you need. You can design a virtual environment that is 10×10, 100×100, or 1000×1000 square feet in size: Because the environment is virtual, there are literally no space constraints.

This gives you an opportunity to do things that were impossible or impractical before:

  • Provide people access to pieces in your collection that you don’t have room to display,
  • Archive exhibits that have been taken down for people to enjoy once the exhibit is closed, or;
  • Create entirely new (virtual) displays for which you don’t have space in your physical museum.

Making the Impossible Practical

Museum planners have long known that immersion and interaction are the keys that unlock visitor engagement. But both are constrained by practical reality:

  • A truly immersive exhibit needs to be designed and built, which takes human and financial resources, and;
  • Interactive exhibits need to be maintained and supervised – especially if they involve valuable or fragile pieces out of the museum’s collection.

The traditional solution is for museum planners to do what they can: Use scale-models or animatronics where appropriate and budget allows, and carefully consider hands-on exhibits.  But virtual reality removes these constraints and opens up new worlds of opportunity. When designing a virtual environment, the sky is the limit.  Consider:

Real World Example

Virtual Analog

An animatronic display of the Pleistocene era.

Place visitors in a (virtual) recreation of a Pleistocene forest, with interactive flora, fauna, and landscape.

A scale model of a historic fort.

Let visitors explore a recreation of the fort at (virtual) full-scale, with interactive objects or characters from the period in situ.

Videos of the deep ocean floor environment.

Give visitors the chance to (virtually) visit the sea floor in-person and interact with the strange creatures who dwell there.

A restored old-fashioned locomotive that can be looked into through a window.

Put visitors in the conductor’s seat and let them drive a (virtual) recreation of the period locomotive.

The designer’s imagination is the only limit.

Bringing Museums Closer

VR in Use in the ClassroomMost museums have a mission to enrich people’s lives through exposure, education, and insight.  But traditionally, a museum’s audience is limited to those who can visit its physical location.

Since very few museums can afford to have multiple locations in different cities or countries, most museums’ audiences are limited to tourists, local school children, and people who live within a local radius around the museum.

In practice, this puts an implicit limit on the people who a museum can reach – and then enrich.

Much like a web site or a mobile app, virtual reality can reach people wherever they are: at home, in the classroom, or in an arcade. Using VR, museums can enrich the lives of people hundreds or thousands of miles away – people who would never otherwise have had the chance to visit the museum itself.

Thanks to virtual reality, your collection, exhibits, and experiences can be enjoyed by people all over the world. For example:

  • a ten year-old in Alabama can wander through your Exploratorium exhibit,
  • an art class in South Korea can see impressionists on display in Paris,
  • an artist in California can see an installation piece on display in New York, or;
  • a classroom of sixth graders in rural North Dakota can get their (virtual) hands wet in an interactive beach life exhibit.

Museums and VR: A Perfect Fit

Museums’ strength has historically been the ability to immerse people in their subject matter, to construct and contextualize narratives, to make those subjects real for the museums’ visitors.

Other mediums – like audio, video, Imax, the web, and even smartphones – have enhanced museums’ ability to immerse and engage. But virtual reality is the first medium whose experiences so closely mirror those of the real world, and its immersive and interactive capabilities make it possible for museums to build on their existing strengths.

Only one year into high-end VR’s commercial launch, and virtual reality is already seeing rapid adoption all around the world. Museums have a mission to enrich people’s lives with education and insight, and virtual reality allows museums to leverage their existing and unique strengths to reach more people and engage them more deeply – without the constraints of physical space.