Hugo Gernsback and his television goggles ~ image via Wikipedia

Augmented Museums

A museum’s promise or peril?

With Pokémon Go and Snapchat’s filters mixing digital worlds with real people and environments, augmented reality is fast becoming a technology adopted by the everyday.

So what does this mean for museums? In their 2016 report, Center for the Future of Museums thinks augmented and virtual realities will hold both the ‘promise and peril’ for museums in the near future.

On one hand, these technologies could keep visitors from the museum, when they can get information and experiences from the comfort of their couch. On the other; these ‘high impact’ technologies might be the key to converting those who don’t typically engage with museums.

So, what is ‘augmented reality’?

Often the terms ‘augmented’, ‘mixed’ and ‘virtual’ realities are confused or used incorrectly. Professor Paul Milgram’s Reality-Virtuality Continuum breaks down these into a spectrum; with our physical reality at one end and full-blown virtuality at the other.

Virtuality Continuum ~ image via TREKK
  1. Reality
    Reality is, obviously, used to refer to what we perceive and interact with in real-life (RL).
  2. Augmented Reality
    Augmented Reality (AR) overlays digital information on top of what we perceive in reality. Using devices like headsets or smartphones, AR can be used in all sorts of ways; both at home and at work.
  3. Augmented Virtuality
    Augmented Virtuality (AV) works completely differently to AR; instead of enhancing real-life with digital information, a virtual world becomes responsive to real-life information. Using devices like XBox’s Kinect, virtual experiences can now react to our physical movement and environment.
  4. Virtual Reality
    Virtual Reality (VR) is a phase completely divorced from what we typically refer to as ‘reality’. At this stage in Milgram’s spectrum, we are completely immersed in a virtual world with devices like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

Mixed Reality
Mixed Reality (MR) Encompasses everything between real-life and virtual reality. While MR is often used interchangeably with AR, a device described as being ‘mixed reality’ typically uses elements of both augmented reality and augmented virtuality. An example of this being, the hyped and extremely secretive Magic Leap headset.

Exclusive Footage of What It’s Like to See Through Magic Leap (via Wired) — Video

An emerging market

Augmented and virtual reality experiences are becoming a booming market; $1.2 billion of venture capital was invested in the sector in the first quarter of this year alone. When digital leaders like Apple get involved, it’s expected that AR will overtake the VR industry between 2018 and 2019. While AR has previously been limited to the enterprise sector, this year it’s starting to leak into the mainstream, with AR incorporated into popular apps such as Snapchat and Pokémon Go. By 2020 the augmented reality industry has been forecasted to reach $90 billion (USD), with virtual reality expected to reach $30 billion.

Part of this industry growth can be attributed to the hardware that augmented experiences will run on. Commitments from heavyweights Google, Apple, Microsoft, HTC/Valve, Sony and Samsung help drive costs down and quality up; producing smaller, lighter and less expensive hardware. The cheaper the hardware, the more possibilities for both entrepreneurial and consumer adoption.

AR software is expected to follow the same model adopted by many mobile markets, where revenue is generated through in-app purchases of virtual items or additional services. Premium apps (apps which users pay to download) will have a place in AR, but these will be mainly gaming-orientated, following the trend of modern mobile apps.

Augmenting the museum experience

#Taull1123: Projection Mapping Sant Climent de Taüll — Project paper | Video Documentation

At Mahuki, we see augmented reality enabling new forms of digital storytelling, allowing museum engagement to become more personal and mobile. By extending existing digital strategies, like bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives, screen-based interaction can now be driven back into the real world.

Relying on a BYOD approach assumes museum audience members own smartphones advanced enough to run augmented experiences, as well as the inclination to download the necessary application. To avoid this uncertainty, an approach used by some museums is projection mapping; where digital content is projected onto physical surfaces. In the case of #Taull1123 project at the Sant Climent de Taüll church and The Met’s Colour the Temple, projection mapping allowed curators to digitally ‘restore’ artifacts whose details and colours have been lost over time.

Color the Temple: Using Projected Light to Restore Color — Project page | Video Documentation

Ripe for cultural innovation

With so much interest and expectations from AR, investors must be backing all AR projects right? Not quite. According to Tim Merel from DigiCapital, ‘AR/VR is cool, but that cool factor is beginning to wear a bit thin with VCs’. With the amount of development in the augmented reality industry, simply producing amazing graphics won’t do the trick to secure VC backing. To catch the interest of investors, AR developers need to provide more than great looking experiences; they need to provide applications which serve an ‘industry-specific’ angle. A market which might not be immediately obvious to fledgling AR creators lies within the GLAM sector; an opportunity which comes packaged with an existing audience, the need for novel user experiences, and an abundance of compelling content perfect for AR engagement.

‘AR/VR is cool, but that cool factor is beginning to wear a bit thin with VCs’

Despite rises in hardware and software accessibility, costs of developing bespoke AR apps and content poses a major barrier for many museums. A feasible route for smaller institutions is by collaborating with third parties, such as local universities and technical colleges. Not only does this extend the technical capabilities of cultural institutions, but also provides real-world case studies for emerging talents. An example of this can be found where the combined efforts of Stanford University students and staff at Cantor Arts Centre produced Art++; an augmented experience for viewing and engaging with artworks.

Art++ — Project page | Video Documentation

Another path for museums is by working with artists and startups who specialise in augmented reality allowing for innovative projects to be accomplished on smaller budgets. This was the case when developing Gift for Athena, a project produced the British Museum and creative interactive company Gamar. Using sculptures housed at the British Museum and augmented reality, the project allowed younger audiences to interact with historical content overlaid on top of the artefacts via their tablet or smartphone.

Gift for Athena — Project page | Video Documentation

Now is the time to get involved in this quickly maturing industry before its inevitable market saturation in the 2020’s. If early entrants scope a viable industry-related angle, such as those related to the GLAM sector, they look to reap the rewards. Here at Mahuki, we can help this intersection between emerging technology and museum practice through our accelerator program. Successful applicants get the space to inform their augmented reality concepts with real-world information and problems from within the GLAM sector. With the amount of investment in AR and developments taking place within the cultural sector, this is the perfect time to get involved in programmes like Mahuki.

Further Reading:

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