Virtual Heritage: what now?

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Rethinking the museum environment and the cultural heritage experience is one of the themes highly discussed during 2020. Before dwelling on the philosophical aspects of an organisation, museum and cultural industry players ought to ensure they have utilised all available technologies such as Virtual Heritage. 

Our articles on digitisation and access to heritage briefly introduce the topic of virtual heritage, Mingei and Gaming and heritage serve as good examples of immersive reality technologies and virtual heritage experience.

Museums, at large, tended to ignore emergent technologies as part of their program or lack the capacity to understand them. Terminology is often confused with all activities are grouped under Virtual Reality.

What are the available technologies?

  • Augmented Reality (AR) is “a system that combines real and virtual content, provides a real-time interactive environment, and registers in 3D.”*

  • Virtual Reality (VR), “transports users toa highly immersive virtual environment without any or little possibility of directly interacting with their immediate physical surroundings.”*

  • Augmented Virtuality(AV), “augments virtual environments with live scenes of events and elements from the real-world”.*

  • Mixed Reality (MxR) “blends the real and virtual environments in different forms and proportions.”*

Moreover, cultural institutions assume that developing such programs would be too costly, thus not proceeding into feasibility studies. Nowadays, Virtual Heritage is actually an affordable option with VR headsets being readily available, that enhances the visitor pool.  The available displays are:

  • Head-Mounted-Display (HMD), is “made for AR and/or MxR are either video or optical see-through, whereas HMDs built for VR and/or AV experiences are blocked headsets since users’ direct view to the physical environment is blocked.”*

  • Spatial Augmented Reality (SAR),  “projects virtual information directly on the real environment through video-projectors. Two or more projectors are used for 3D effects.”*

  • Hand-Held-Devices (HHD), “desktop screen and projection, are portable displays such as smartphones and tablets.”*

  • Desktop screens and table-top projectors.

  • Cave Automatic virtual environment (CAVE), “is a projection-based display technology that allows multiple co-located users to share fully immersive VR experience.”*

With this in mind, to create a virtual heritage experience, you need to establish similar criteria to any other educational activity. Set:

  • the goal of the experience or learning outcome.
  • the interaction process or transmission method, such as a collaborative group project.
  • the technology or tools, beyond pen and paper.

Therefore, at the phase of conceptualisation first understand and describe the virtual heritage as a real experience in the physical world, technology will then help you transfer the experience in the virtual environment.

Any heritage learning tool starts by identifying the heritage values, creating a narrative of those values and then transmitting them to the spectator. For example, many museums include replicas of artefacts that visitors can interact with and enhance their experience and understanding. Can you imagine this experience in the virtual world?

Where would you be? At the heritage site of origin or the exhibition space?

Are you interacting with the environment or just the object?

Are other people there? If yes, how do you see and interact with them?

What do you hear? Are the sounds part of the simulated environment or existing?

When you touch an artefact, is it merely to examine it or are you part of the making process?

This thinking process is merely an example aimed to help museum professionals to comprehend how virtual heritage works.  Immersive technologies offer several tangible interface systems as:

  • “Collaborative interfaces often use a combination of complementary interaction methods, sensors, and devices to enable a co-located and/or remote collaboration among users.

  • Device-based interfaces use GUIs and conventional devices, such as a mouse, gamepad, joystick, and wand to enable interaction and manipulation of virtual content.

  • Sensor-based interaction interfaces use sensing devices to perceive users’ interaction inputs. The common types of sensors include motion trackers, gaze trackers, and speech recognisers.

  • Multimodal interfaces are a fusion of two and more sensors, devices, and interaction techniques that sense and understand humans’ natural interaction modalities.

  • Hybrid interfaces integrate a range of complementary interaction interfaces to devise a method that combines different characteristics from the above categories.” *

As a result, in the virtual environment, you have simulated experience and arguably enhanced the museum visit, with multiple sensory stimulations. COVID-19 practically forced museums to embrace the digital world but not to its full capacity. Museums have the means to allow visitors to experience and learn from the comfort of their homes during the pandemic. Furthermore, after the pandemic, a virtual heritage activity can offer access to the museums to visitors beyond their region and target groups, as they can visit from all over the world and can be catered to people with disabilities.

In 2020 we live equally in the virtual and physical environment; our activities and culture can be equilibrated in both.

I want to learn more:

*Quotes from the paper by Mafkereseb Kassahun Bekele and Erik Champion: A Comparison of Immersive Realities and Interaction Methods: Cultural Learning in Virtual Heritage

Evaluating Learning with Tangible and Virtual Representations of Archaeological Artifacts, by  Christina  Pollalis, Elizabeth Joanna, Lauren  Westendorf,   Whitney  Fahnbulleh,  Isabella  Virgilio, A. L. Kun, Orit  Shaer.

Virtual Heritage: A Guide, Edited by Erik Champion

Supporting Cultural Heritage Professionals Adopting and Shaping Interactive Technologies in Museums, by Laura A. Maye, Dominique Bouchard, Gabriela Avram, Luigina Ciolfi.

European Commission: Basic principles and tips for 3D digitisation of cultural heritage 

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