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Are Virtual Museums Replacing Real Ones?


Ever wanted to explore an ancient Egyptian pyramid from the inside? Or have a chat with Albert Einstein about the theory of relativity? Or actually get up close to measure up a tyrannosaurus? Well, it looks like these could become a reality in the near time – thanks to AR-VR (augmented reality – virtual reality) revolution that is making museums move away from mere exhibitors to creators of experiences.

“Museums have long relied on technology to give context to their exhibits—whether through informational videos, audio guides, or smartphone apps. AR/VR is the next obvious step to increase a museum’s audience engagement and ultimately help visitors retain valuable information in an educational atmosphere,” explains IEEE member and Professor, Todd Richmond, in an exclusive conversation with CXOToday.

Richmond, who is also the Director, Tech & Narrative Lab at Pardee RAND Graduate School, believes that while both AR and VR have their benefits, the two technologies offer different types of engagement experiences. It’s important for a museum curator to understand these technologies in order for children and adults to be fully captivated or immersed in the experience.

Virtual Museums“VR’s strength is embodiment and immersion,” explains Richmond. “So instead of looking at a physical display or video screen that recreates a time, place or objects, a user will be able to be inside that time or place,” he says.

The benefit of using virtual reality in museums means guests can feel like they’re walking in someone else’s shoes, understand their different viewpoints and engage in those interactions rather than just observe in a traditional setting.


“AR is slightly different in that it can overlay information, people or objects on the physical space,” says Richmond, adding that “So, museums and classrooms can be inhabited by a combination of physical spaces or objects and digital representations of information of people or objects.”

Utilizing AR in museums means that digital experiences can become context-aware based off the user, change for different times of the day, or even adapt to different spaces. Museums often use AR for interactive scavenger hunts that encourage exploration throughout a space.

There are many advantages of using AR/VR in museums of modern times. Richmond states, “Museums are physical spaces that are immersive, but once you leave, the immersion and experience ends. AR/VR holds the promise of extending the museum experience on both ends – engaging with a person before they come to the physical location and retaining a connection after they leave.”

In other words, increasing sophisticated VR/AR will bring new opportunities and immersive storytelling tools to create the impact and the experience that are more optimized to what young people are looking for, he explains.

Both AR/VR have a long way to go, even though there is enough growth momentum. “We’re still in a combination of transitional phase for the hardware to get better (lighter or wireless), experience design to improve (which depends in-part on better hardware), and the “killer app” on the software side,” says Richmond.

He gives the example of Hollywood – an industry which is still struggling with how to fit AR/VR into their existing business models. Also, he believes that the 2020 Olympics may give a bump if networks are able to work VR into their broadcast options.

Globally, many museums have embraced AR/VR technologies to enliven their exhibits. The custom dinosaur-themed AR experience at the  Smithsonian Museum Of Natural History, Washington DC is a classic example of AR bringing extinct creatures to life in an entirely new way, allowing people to learn about them. Also, a large-screen mammoth themed AR experience at the Florida Museum of Natural History, provides a unique platform for people to learn about natural history in a highly engaging, shared group experience, allowing them to interact with both the 3D creatures and each other.

Closer home, the National Museum of Singapore also leverages AR to narrate the Story of the Forest. Visitors use an app, combined with the camera function on their phones, to hunt for and capture various plants and animals within the drawings. The app, like Pokémon Go, tells you what’s nearby and adds it to a photo collection once you’ve captured it.

At present however, no Indian museum has deployed these technologies though the museum in Rashtrapati Bhavan, inaugurated by former President Pranab Mukherjee, harnessed augmented reality technology, in recent past, to offer visitors an opportunity to take a virtual walk with the Father of the Nation as he leaves what was then known as the Viceroy’s Palace after signing the Gandhi-Irwin pact on March 5,1931.

Richmond observes, “Cost and experience design are the biggest hurdles. Museums generally run on tight budgets, so moving money towards AR/VR development takes money away from something else. That said, some of the AR/VR content scales in ways that are advantageous to museums, so at some point the cost/benefit equation will tip towards increased virtual elements.

Perhaps these technologies are still waiting for the killer app. It could be AR and maps – that is probably the lowest hanging fruit though there remain challenges around how you effectively display augmented information without overloading your user.

Once an AR/VR technology is established in a museum, users must be able to easily interact and stay engaged with the curated story line and technology.“Right now, virtual technologies are novel, so you can gain attention rather easily,” says Richmond.” That said, once you have someone’s attention, you need to keep it, and to do that the experience needs to be compelling, entertaining and useful.”But as AR/VR becomes an increasingly popular trend in educational environments such as in museums, Richmond is hopeful the technology will improve to increase engagement and offer an interactive way to learn.

“We’re still in the early days of immersive mediums, so the types of experiences that are both engaging and have efficacy are challenging to create,” says an optimistic Richmond. “But as with any medium, the more we experiment, the better we get.”

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at