This post is part of an ongoing monthly series of posts that will focus on our current efforts in the Museum’s Science Bulletins team to create and test prototypes of Hall-based digital interactions using AR and VR using our scientists’ digital science data, and to share some of the lessons we learn along the way.
Last fall, the 2016 Margaret Mead Film Festival Virtual Reality Showcase invited both general Museum visitors and Mead participants to explore new cultural perspectives through cutting edge technology. The showcase, called the VR lounge, was held within an alcove of our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians.
Participants were invited to put on one of the 20 VR devices (Samsung Gear VR), sit on a stool, and watch a non-interactive 360-degree VR film. “Take cutting-edge virtual reality for a test drive and see how this new technology is transforming filmmaking,” we promised. “Experience the lives of nomadic cultures around the world and dive into the history of Cuban dance in this casual drop-in environment.”
Over the course of the weekend, over 1,000 people watched at least one video. An evaluation we ran on a small subset of that group found that we could offer a VR experience at scale, supported by volunteers, and that it engaged visitors in a fresh, new way with contemporary cultural content. While technical challenges were persistent, in most cases they were overcome and were secondary to the strength of the VR experience itself. Visitors and Museum volunteers alike left the experience wanting more 360 VR content about – and in more places within – the Museum.
One of the most frequently recommended locations was our dino halls. So this March we began prototyping 360 videos, to learn if 360 video could meet visitors’ interests in getting a peek behind-the-scenes at how the science performed in labs and offices around the campus intersect with their experiences within the permanent halls.
First, let’s talk about terms. At the Mead Festival, we used the term virtual reality, as that’s the current term of art. If you want to watch 360 videos by the New York Times, for example, you download their app called “NYC VR”. So that’s how we started, asking visitors if they wanted to try out a 360 VR behind-the-scenes experience.
We used 6 Go Pros on a stick to film 4 scenes.
Scene 1: You’re starting in front of our T.rex, in our Hall of Saurischian dinosaurs, being led on a paleontology tour by a Museum guide as visitors around you ask questions.
Scene 2: You’re in the Museum’s Big Bone Room, as Danny Barta, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, explains the dinosaur fossils that surround us.
Scene 3: You’re in a circular room, the office of Mark Norell, Division Chair and Macaulay Curator, Division of Paleontology, who tours us around his work space.
Scene 4: You’re back at the T.rex, with our Museum guide, who concludes the tour.
We wanted to learn how long visitors might want to be immersed in the world of a 360 video. We also wanted to learn if it made a difference if there was a meaningful relationship between the subject of the video and the location in the Hall where they watched it; a related but different question was whether or not the Hall could provide context to the video. Finally, did visitors prefer to have an immersive experience with wearable headgear (we used the Merge VR Goggles) or a social experience with a Samsung phone they can hold up and move around to explore the scene?
To address these questions we broke the larger narrative into three units:
Video 1: The Full Video – all four scenes, at 7 minutes long, to be offered by the T.rex, just a few feet away from the location the camera shot the first scene.
Video 2: Big Bone Room – just Scene 2, at 3 minutes, offered by a new permanent exhibit about the Big Bone Room in the 4th Floor Orientation Center (the bone featured in the video is now featured in the exhibit itself).
Video 3: Mark Norell’s Office – just Scene 3, at 1.5 minutes, offered in the 4th Floor Astor Turret, a few floors beneath the office itself (which means the windows around you offer the same view as the windows in the 360 video).
After observing and interviewing 150 people, we learned some things.
Some (and far from all) of the key lessons we took away from this round of prototyping:
- BEHIND-THE-SCENE 360 video meets a need. Visitors of all, of all ages and backgrounds, find the experience compelling. They are excited to peak behind the scenes, and 360 video is an effective way to offer a “you are there” experience.
- VIDEO length works – Visitors were comfortable with sitting and watching a 7 minute or less video in 360 video. That is an unusually high length of time when compared with visitor’s average time spent watching hall-based videoes. Yet many in fact wished it had gone even longer.
- INTERACTION desired – Most visitors want to be able to interact with the video in some capacity, either by zooming in on a particular bone or by getting more information about a specific bone. It didn’t matter if they were in the immersive or social experience – getting to see it in 360 video suggested to them it might be possible to interact with content in the scene.
- FACILITATION required – Using the VR headset with visitors still requires some facilitation as most visitors are inexperienced with how VR headsets works. Setup, audio, and getting the video to play are areas of high facilitation need. While some Halls were quiet enough to let the Samsung’s speakers carry the audio, other times visitors required, or just preferred, the offered headset.
- 360 VR is a confusing term. If we understand virtual reality as an experience that replaces what we see and hear, then VR, in this context, is not the media but the console. We offered the same videos in both the VR headgear and the Samsung – but only one could honestly be described as immersive. So rather than ask visitors “Would you prefer the VR experience, or not?” we only felt we began to get unbiased answers when we asked “Would you prefer immersive 360 video or social 360 video?” Each term speaks to the strength of the experience.