Ever dreamt of seeing sea dinosaurs up close? Probably not, but if you change your mind, it’s now possible. The National History Museum in London is launching First Life, a virtual reality project which allows visitors to explore the bottom of the ocean as it was 500 million years ago. Visitors inside the museum are invited to put on the devices and watch a virtual movie narrated by Sir David Attenborough. For 15 minutes, they discover the extinct wildlife and the strange creatures inhabiting the oceans at the time.

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Led by the Natural History Museum together with Samsung and Atlantic Productions, the project manages to give its visitors one of the first truly compelling and educational VR experience. The device is simple enough – a Samsung Galaxies phone with the app attached to virtual reality headset – and easy to use. Users quickly forget about the technology to fully focus on the movie presented to them. With Sir David Attenborough on its side, the museum uses a familiar, respected  and most of all figure of nature documentary. His presence helps users easing into the story and gives a seal of approval to the project, showing it’s not just another gadget.

For the museum team, the project is a new, augmented and engaging mediation tool allowing visitors to access content and gain knowledge like never before. With a virtual reality device, a museum can expand the scope of what it can show to its audience and reach out to younger , more connected audiences.

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Well, you might think, if it’s so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? Although the exciting impact Oculus Rift could have on museums in often brought up in conferences and articles, only few institutions have implemented such a project. The truth is, a few barriers still stand between museums and virtual reality projects.

First of all, the cost. The devices might be getting cheaper with time, but the cost of developing the right software and tools is still quite steep and many institutions just can’t afford it.

Second of all, the teams. Developing good software, relevant to the museum’s educational purpose and content takes time and skill. It also takes cooperation between software developers, 3D designers, curators, educators and more. Few institutions have that skill set in their own teams, and it’s hard to find the time and ressources to work with outside specialists.

Finally, some institutions fear the « gadget » aspect, pointing out that virtual reality experiences can tend to entertainment and gaming, thus desecrating the art and the museum’s educational mission. Although views on the subject are rapidly changing and museums are starting to embrace innovation and foster digital initiatives, some institutions are still hesitant to put in the time or money for such projects.

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For these reasons, a large part of virtual reality apps concerning museums have actually been launched by independent agencies or individuals working outside the scope  of cultural institutions. For instance, the Museum of Stolen Art, a VR app presenting lost or stolen artwork in a virtual museum, was launched by an Ziv Schneider, an NYU student. Computer Love, another successful VR app created as a virtual museum was launched by students of the University  of Sheffield to showcase the artworks owned by the university. Europeana, a digital archive for European Artworks, also commissioned Oculus Rift to build an experimental Virtual Reality project with artworks from the Rijksmuseum called Museum of the Future.

In these cases, the virtual reality apps have allowed their creators to go beyond reality – in the Lost Museum’s case, by bringing lost artworks back to life, and in Computer Love’s case, by creating ambitious and complex displays that would be too expensive and risky in real life. For the Natural History Museum, the virtual reality project has allowed the team behind the project to push the boundaries of what they could show their audience and engage with them. Part of a cultural institution’s ambitions is to immerse the visitors in an era, a culture or an artwork. Virtual reality is helping GLAMs rethink the experience they can offer and how far they can go with reconstitution. It forces them to be creative, rethink the way they tell stories and adapt to new audiences. The success of virtual reality lies beyond the technological prowess and the exciting digital innovation that it brings. It’s more than just a fun tool or a new mediation technique – it’s a way to help museums think bigger.