Can virtual reality in a museum be used to enhance the visitor experience, to strengthen appreciation for the collections? At the same time, can VR assist families and friends to have meaningful conversations about the objects? Or will this all backfire, will VR just be the latest shiny distraction, isolating visitors from the spaces and people around them?
The jury is still out, but a strong argument is being made for the pro-VR side by a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Open until March 26, Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is the first U.S. exhibition focused on this French designer and architect.
VR is certainly not the most dramatic element in the show – that distinction would go to the furniture silhouettes (below), with the real objects on one side of a sheet while the reverse features not only silhouettes of the chairs, tables and divans but of animated people interacting with them.
VR is also not the most technologically innovative – that would be what I’d describe as a building-scale CT-scan, with slices shown on a slowly moving screen above the blueprints on the floor while rooms are highlighted and featured on a side wall with video (below).
VR, nonetheless, plays a powerful role contextualizing the furniture, and is so integrated into the exhibit experience that it makes this future-focused tech feel natural (an achievement in and of itself). The VR room can be entered from four directions (see below). There are four chairs next to the center of the room, each stationed before each of the four corners. Each corner features well-lit furniture in a black void. And on each visitor chair is a tethered VR viewer, inviting visitors to pick it up, have a seat, and use it like a pair of binoculars.
Before I describe the experience of using the VR, here’s the context. The signage before entering the room explains that this segment is about interior design. We are told that Chareau was “greatly admired for the way his interiors displayed his exquisite furniture to best advantage.” He had an “almost sculptural conception of space, characterized by an imaginative interplay of space and voids.” While none of these interiors have survived, photographs exist and were used to create VR simulations of the rooms that originally housed the furniture we will see.
Sitting in the seat, facing the appropriate corner, one views in front of them some pieces of furniture. Looking through the Gear VR viewer (a static 360 degree photo) you will still see the same furniture, but now they appear (through computer generated art) in context: in a French salon, or garden, or living room, or office. Twisting around on your chair, you might look up at the light streaming down, or the carpet on the floor, at how all the pieces of the room fit together.
And when you remove the VR viewer, there’s the furniture, still in front of you as before, taking their bows as stars of the show as your mind fills in the dark void around them with memories of your recent visit. It was immersive, seamless, and compelling.
The VR did what VR can do best – take you somewhere you couldn’t otherwise go, to experience something which no longer exists (and in some cases never did), to enhance your appreciation of something real before you. And because it’s just a silent 360 photo – not a video – we (my family and I) were free to talk with each other throughout.
I was there with my family. Here are some details they and I noticed, in no particular order:
- Other than a security guard (as there was in each of the exhibit’s rooms), there was no staff in the space. Visitors were left to manage the VR on their own, which, when it worked, worked fine.
- Only three of the four viewers were functioning during our visit. The security guard had to repeatedly explain that to us and other visitors.
- That also means no one cleaned the viewers between visitors (at least not while we were there). My wife, who has a super-natural sense of smell, told me she could tell.
- My son noted that since the VR was computer generated, the textures were not 100%. “But I think I liked it like that”.
- I had presumed the cord connecting the device to the chair was for purposes of security. The security guard explained it was the power cord.
- Because there was no video to start or stop, no screen or gestural interface that needed to be learned, no instruction was required beyond “Please sit and view”. There was little to no learning curve challenging the visitors. It played off the natural interface of picking something up and looking through it.