Night at the Museum: VR, Streaming Keep the Virtual Doors Open

Museums that have closed their physical doors now focus on providing a virtual experience with help from streaming media, social media, and virtual reality. Cowboy Tim, penguins, and other unexpected icons bring joy to the homebound and push the boundaries of our cultural institutions.


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Image credit: Shedd Aquarium


Museums and cultural centers are doing their part to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and that, unfortunately, means closing their doors to the public. Currently, the questions at the forefront of every museum director’s or curator’s mind must be, “How can we get our collections online efficiently, without overwhelming our audience?” And “how do we stay relevant in a post-Covid-19 world?”

With an assist from their rich archives and a brush stroke of creativity, museums, zoos, and science halls are finding more meaningful ways to connect with their visitors through technology. Virtual reality (VR), streaming new media, and engaging social media are creating  positive experiences for the public in this time of social distancing. 

The Renaissance of Virtual Reality

Several museums have made the initial investment to provide full virtual and augmented reality (AR) experiences. Many believe this is a worthwhile investment, especially considering the emerging affordability of VR devices. As VR technology becomes more accessible to the average consumer, more people will have the opportunity to fully experience the world's most outstanding collections from the comfort of their home.

The Louvre Museum in Paris created a virtual reality experience that they appropriately dubbed “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass” The museum created an extended home version of the VR experience and made it available for download through VIVEPORT and other VR platforms for audiences across the globe. 

Virtual reality vision of Mona Lisa

Image credit: VIVEPORT

This experience combined an in-museum and at-home option to view and engage with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. At home, global visitors can experience a virtual visit to the Louvre, entering through the iconic Pyramid and making their way to the Grand Galerie to see all the da Vinci paintings in the museum’s permanent collection. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History built a similar virtual tour for visitors who want to experience its different exhibits.

A leading developer of museum VR experiences is Seattle-based HTC VIVE. The company has built a VR platform and ecosystem that creates interactive VR experiences for businesses and consumers. The VIVE ecosystem is built around premium VR hardware, software, and content. The VIVE business encompasses XR hardware; VIVEPORT platform and app store; VIVE Enterprise Solutions for business customers; VIVE X, a $100M VR business accelerator; VIVE STUDIOS, an entertainment, gaming, and enterprise content studio; and VIVE ARTS for cultural initiatives.

Many museums have not invested in VR, but they have built other options to share their collections. Google Arts and Culture offers virtual tours of 3,000-plus museums and cultural sites that a user can navigate much like Google street view. Visitors on a smartphone or computer can click their way through Musée d’Orsay in Paris and experience some of the best that Édouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh have to offer.

Opening the Digital Doors

Social media is the most accessible tool available to museums of all sizes hoping to enhance their digital presence, as #museumfromhome is generating interest in the virtual offerings of museums around the world. With its doors closed to visitors, The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City put a new man in charge of its Twitter account: head of security and charismatic everyman, Tim. Now more than 300K+ people follow Tim as he virtually shares historical images and artifacts inside the museum. 

The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago did something similar, but loaded up its building with a fleet of cameras and featured a few dapper, flightless birds. The Shedd Aquarium is capturing motion video of its flock of penguins exploring the museum and posting the pictures and videos online, all to great fanfare. 

In Oakland, the Oakland Zoo added a five-days-a-week content stream led by animal keepers and veterinarians. Virtual visitors get behind-the-scenes, up-close experiences with the animals, and visitors can ask real-time questions during the live broadcasts. Zoo employees show animal feedings and other daily activities that visitors are rarely privy to during the typical in-person visit.

VR: More than Fun and Games

In addition to providing insights into closed museums, virtual reality technology is providing a view into other valuable assets: human lungs infected by the COVID-19 virus. After receiving its first coronavirus patient in March, George Washington University Hospital turned to virtual reality to help fight the disease. By using VR technology, the GW team was able to look inside the patient’s lungs and see in remarkable detail the type of damage the virus was doing to lung tissue.

Virtual reality image of a coronavirus infected lung

Image credit: GW Hospital

Merging the Physical and Digital Worlds

Virtual reality and imaging technology is opening up new opportunities for solutions integrators and partners to help organizations survive during our moment of isolation. While VR had been previously stuck as a mostly niche technology for gamers, it may be having its breakout moment during this pandemic, allowing us to collaborate, view, and experience the world in a whole new way. 


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