Wanting to try your hand at the latest technology, whether it’s augmented reality or 3-D printing? Head to a museum.
Local museums have adapted to the swift progress of technology, incorporating both established tech, such as apps and video games, and with the cutting edge, such as 3-D printing and virtual and augmented reality.
But it’s not just glitz and glitter. Technology is a tool, another layer on top of an exhibit, to create a more engaging, educational and individualized experience — one that has become increasingly necessary as the world changes.
“Museums continue to evolve in time to what is import to their audience and community,” said Jodi Schoemer, director of exhibits and digital media at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “Otherwise we would still be using a typewriter to make very wordy labels.”
At DMNS, visitors can walk through the International Space Station, run with dinosaurs, place layers of muscle and skin over fossils and print out models of real fossils with the help of virtual and augmented realities and 3-D printing. The Clyfford Still Museum’s latest exhibit on Thursday started using augmented reality to place virtual pieces of art, such as Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” on the wall next to Still’s pieces to compare and contrast.
In coming exhibits, the Denver Art Museum will incorporate its first video game, called “Never Alone,” which features Alaskan indigenous culture, while the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art plans to bring back an audio guide available through a MCA Denver app.
Although fun, museums say the use of tech is not for novelty’s sake. As Clyfford Still’s director, Dean Sobel, said, “If we could put in an ice cream machine, we could attract other audiences. It has to work first.”
Placing layers of muscles and skin on top of fossils with augmented reality creates a better understanding of how a dinosaur’s body may have worked. Most physical pieces of the virtual art showing at Clyfford Still would be too difficult or expensive to acquire (and augmented reality allows the museum to skirt a prohibition on hanging work that is not Still’s). Audio guides give more details about artwork and artist without clogging wall space.
“Museums have been adopting technology over the past decades and they’ll continue to do that in order to drive traffic,” said Jitesh Ubrani, a senior research analyst for International Data Corporation. “VR (and AR) is just going to be the next step in that case.”
He said more and more museums have been adopting virtual and augmented reality. Although it’s not just them. Theme parks, movie theaters and tourist attractions have hopped on it, too.
Schoemer said museums are following the trends in the market, which are moving toward more individualized and customized experiences. As such, visitors will begin to expect more personalization from their museum experiences.
For example, museums may in the future use voice and facial recognition, as well as proximity activation, to adjust an exhibit so it targets the viewer, whether that’s a child, an adult or a mix of both.
But adding new technology can be difficult. Schoemer said virtual and augmented realities became affordable for non-profit museums in 2015 but it took time and money to develop content that is high resolution and scientifically accurate. Oh, and affordability doesn’t mean cheap, she added.
MCA spokesman Clayton Kenney said the museum added the audio guide in February 2016 but people were slower on the uptake than expected. The museum put it on pause for the latest exhibit, which is bilingual, because creating an audio guide in two languages was too expensive and time intensive for the museum’s small team.
But the feedback for technologies deployed at Denver museums has been positive. The number one response from people stepping off the virtual International Space Station is that they wanted a longer experience. MCA visitors who used the audio guides said they enjoyed it, inspiring the museum to bring it back for the next exhibit in February — but this time stepping up signage and offering devices to check out to help increase use.
It’s not just visitors who appear to appreciate museums stepping into the high-tech world.
“Going into other fields — museums, medical, military or any number of situation you can do — it gives (virtual and augmented reality) staying power because it won’t get stuck in that (gaming) niche,” said Sean Brown, department chair of animation and gaming at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.
The relationship goes both ways. Museums enter virtual reality to show off exhibits while virtual reality apps enter museums so people can walk through them from their homes, Brown said.
Similarly, an app called Cuseum was developed to help museums offer a modern experience through wayfinding and audio guides. It’s used by MCA and DAM, among others.
But with the addition of technology, museums naturally have differing opinions on what works best and what doesn’t.
Sobel said augmented art pieces near or are equal to the quality of the physical piece. But he is not a fan of audio guides, feeling they can distract from the art itself.
On the other hand, Kenney said audio guides help people learn about the art without overwhelming them with labels. “Engaging with the muse on the walls is why you come to the museum,” whereas a virtual piece would not offer that level of engagement, he said.
But one major benefit of technology all museums agree on: You don’t have to use it. Visitors can opt out in favor of a traditional museum experience — that won’t be supplanted by augmented reality or 3-D printing. Additionally, virtual reality will not become ubiquitous, consuming all exhibits, Schoemer said.
“I don’t think there’s really a substitute for seeing the real thing, for touching the real thing,” she said. “But sometimes the technology is used to augment the way people engage.”