Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 3. VR WEEVIL

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 


Assets: CT scan of a weevil, provided by Steve Davis

Technology: HTC Vive

What we did: Working with Museum scientist Steve Davis, we developed an immersive, VR experience around the CT scan of a root weevil. Users enter a virtual orange grove, click on a leaf, and are suddenly standing on the leaf by a human-sized weevil. They explore the insect to learn about its wing structure and the fascinating way insects breathe. A soundscape adds to the immersion.

We tested the prototype in the Grand Gallery with visiting elementary and middle school groups (3 hours of public evaluation; 17 people observed; 17 people interviewed).

Key finding: CT scans can form the basis of immersive VR experiences that surprise and thrill visitors and are, at the same time, truly educational. But developing a high-quality experience is resource-intensive, and screening it to the public requires specialized facilities and know-how.

Other findings:

  • Working with scientists is key. To interpret a specimen meaningfully, we found it critical to work directly with scientists at every stage of production, from choosing the specimen, to identifying messages, to accurately depicting movement and environment.
  • Realism may not be necessary. With limited resources to produce the prototype, we used off-the-shelf imagery to create an immersive setting that was less-than-realistic looking. As we consider aesthetic options for VR products, we will have to factor in production time and costs (e.g., for digital assets or outside developers). One work-around may be to adopt a decidedly non-realistic style (e.g., a “drawn” look) for most content, while presenting key images (e.g., CT scans) in high resolution, allowing them to stand out from a stylized background.
  • Surprises are good. Few students knew in advance they were about to encounter a “giant” weevil. Many screamed or jumped back in surprise. Their reactions attracted other users. Even when we had a preview screen set up so that others could see what the viewer saw, the immersive experience was much more immediate and affecting.
  • Keep it simple. We strove to keep the “lesson” simple, by focusing on a single, surprising fact (how insects breathe) and using the scan to illustrate it. Nearly all users grasped the message and seemed to find it interesting. We also minimized the number of interactions, to keep the experience short and easy to complete.
  • Embodied interactions increase engagement. The ability to project one’s body into an experience (e.g., to walk around and even through the weevil) increased visitors’ connection with the content. They really liked being immersed. But we found the hand-held wand was difficult to master, especially for small children. For both AR and VR experiences, our challenge will be to make interactions easy and intuitive.
  • Brief engagements can be satisfying when they are intense. Even after waiting up to 30 minutes for a turn, children reported being highly satisfied with the 3-minute experience. Still, the long lines were also a reminder that VR allows for only small audiences, and must be managed in very differently than other exhibits or media within the Museum.
  • Immersion can be transporting, but also isolating. As one child described the immersion, “Most people playing a video game are outside. Here you are inside the game.” Another child agreed, reporting, “I was in another world, not just the museum.” The immersive nature of the experience was exciting for these children. The challenge will be to create immersive experiences that can also deepen users’ connection with the Museum’s spaces and content, as well as their connection with the people in their social group.

Read more about this series of prototypes here and here or learn more about the other prototypes below:

  1. AR SHARK (learn more)
  2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE (learn more)
  3. VR WEEVIL (learn more)
  4. AR CONSTELLATIONS (learn more)
  5. ESCAPE THE PLANET (learn more)
  6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE (learn more)
  7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS (learn more)
  8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO (learn more)
  9. CT MUMMIES (learn more)
  10. TREE OF LIFE (learn more)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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