To VR or Not to VR?

To VR or Not to VR?

Anyone remember Avatar? A rainforest planet of lovable blue aliens battling for survival against hater earthling-invaders? A blockbuster benchmark in CG animation? A groundbreaking 3D production? If you’re thinking, kind-of-not-really, or, vaguely-but-who-cares, you’re not alone.  While the 2009 sci-fi epic stands as the highest-grossing film in the world to date, it barely registers in today’s pop culture landscape. Think about how many blue aliens you’ve seen partying it up next to each year’s crop of Halloween Han Solos, Princess Leias and Ghostbusters. Try calling up a single Avatar catchphrase that’s entered the cultural lexicon like the “May-the-Force-Be-With-Yous,” “ET Phone Homes,” or “Wax-On-Wax-Offs” of other Hollywood productions. Nada, right?


A vaguely recalled battle on the planet of Pandora. Photo source:

That’s today. Back in 2009 and 2010 there weren’t too many people suggesting Avatar was a cultural blip. The movie was definitely a big influence on the way people were thinking about visitor experiences in museums and science centres. It seemed that in pretty well every exhibit design session I was involved in, someone at the table would reference Avatar and champion inclusion of a 3D film experience—large or small. Everyone was inspired by Avatar’s vividly rendered 3D world and there was a lot of faith in 3D technology’s ability to deliver a cutting edge, transformative wow-factor experience. That was before 3D releases of major motion pictures became common-place and the magic of Avatar faded out. Don’t get me wrong: 3D film productions still have a place as a big exhibit draw. It’s just that they no longer shine with the same game-changing aura as they did in the not-so-distant-past.

There are some lessons in this not-so-distant-past worth considering today, as we stand on the brink of widely available VR technology. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard—if VR’s first-movers aren’t hitting with the same immediate impact as Avatar, there’s no shortage of discussion in exhibit and interpretive design about VR’s potential to fundamentally transform museum experience and engagement. That’s the gist of a recent Stephen Karmazyn Globe and Mail article, “The role of virtual reality and technology in the future of museums,” which presents contrasting perspectives between a “next generation” pro-technology museum philosophy and a perceived “traditionalist,” supposedly tech-shy approach. The article hangs the debate on two museums’ respective approaches to VR technology, with the Canadian Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) incorporating VR experiences when they re-open to the public in 2017, while the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has no plans to do so.


What form will VR technology take as a museum offering? Photo source:

While the VR-or-not-to-VR discussion poses some interesting exhibit possibilities to mull over, it also misses the main point. More than anything else, museums are defined by the stories they deliver. There’s a large (and ever-growing) number of awesome digital technologies museums can use to deliver their stories to their audiences…but if the stories aren’t compelling, and the technology doesn’t work as part of a wider visitor experience, the medium of the day—be it VR goggles, 3D film or natural history dioramas—is quickly consigned to novelty. And novelty never lasts. In my opinion the bigger story is less about museums’ ever-evolving technological approaches, and more about how museums have redefined their approach to story as expectations of their roles and responsibilities in society has shifted. Traditional museums, focused principally on the collection, preservation and display of historical artifacts, have evolved into far more active and engaging institutions—community-facing organizations that are centers of social dialogue and reflection and participation.

Where technology is concerned, the truth of it is museums have always adopted the technologies of their times to get their stories out to the public. Film productions have been included in museum exhibits since the 1950s; touchscreen interactives found their way on to gallery floors soon after the technology became commercially available. Over the last 10 to 15 years, museums have been launching ever-more sophisticated virtual exhibits and digital narratives, reaching audiences beyond their walls as technological capacities for online experiences have increased.


Very simple film productions are used to great effect in Bouchra Kalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008-2011) currently on exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Dan Asfar.

Strategy is the start point in bringing effective technological innovations into museum experience. What are the interpretive objectives? What are the requirements of the story and the space? Often the technology doesn’t need to be cutting-edge for hugely successful outcomes. The British Museum’s groundbreaking History of the World in 100 Objects increased its international profile and successfully engaged a global audience by delivering a masterfully crafted story through BBC radio broadcasts, podcast releases and a concurrently running online exhibit. More recently, the Brooklyn Museum developed ASK, a super cool downloadable app that allows visitors to engage in meaningful conversations with art experts. The app itself is nothing more technologically complex than an instant messaging interface, where visitors take photos and ask questions of pieces they are interested in. The outcome is nothing less than a “curator in your pocket,” providing a tailored live interpretive programme customized to visitors’ individual interests.


The Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app gives you instant access to this team of art experts at any time while visiting the museum. Photo source:

We just completed an interpretive project for Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia, in which an augmented reality app was the best technological solution for delivery of a suite of stories within an immersive, historically authentic space. The augmented reality application provided a portal into the Castle’s many stories, which had previously been accessible only to visitors who took guided tours. The app provided visitors with a fascinating exploratory narrative interface while leaving the authentic historical interior of the Castle untouched by physical exhibit components.

I get great satisfaction out of seeing stories come to life in cool and unexpected ways. In getting there, however, it’s important to recognize that while the technological interface determines the way the visitor experiences the story, the experience will not resonate unless the story is compelling, and the technology works as a seamless extension of an exhibit concept or interpretive objective.

-Dan Asfar, Content Strategist

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