Illustration: Jean Jullien


Danny Birchall, Issue 115/01, p14, 02.01.2015
The myriad possibilities of virtual reality
At the Museums Computer Group’s annual conference late last year, virtual reality (VR) was an unexpectedly hot topic. A high-tech idea, it’s nevertheless been around so long that it reminds many of us of the 1980s movie Tron.

The latest wave of enthusiasm for VR is led by the much-hyped Oculus Rift gaming headset, anticipated to break the barriers of affordability and accessibility for VR when it is commercially released later this year.

Practical VR for museums may become a reality – Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect technology recently allowed the Louvre to enhance the experience of a fourth-century Greek veil.

To what uses will museums put it? At the conference, researcher Tara Copplestone argued that museums’ vision of the possibilities of VR has been limited to “virtual tourism”, just reproducing in vectors and pixels the hallowed precincts of museums themselves.

Other 3D gaming technologies such as CryEngine and Unity have been used to recreate historical environments rich in detail, but again, the emphasis has been on the fidelity of representation.

Must VR be limited by an insistence on a single version of history? Museums are increasingly aware that objects’ context and interpretation is crucial to the stories they tell and that not all these contexts are found within a museum’s walls.

What if we used technology to create varied realities based on these contexts, allowing visitors to explore the overlapping narratives of history?

Danny Birchall is the Wellcome Collection’s digital manager