#VRWC17: How to put VR into Museums

By Phil Stuart, Events, How we did it

Fresh from VR World Congress, I wanted to write-up the talk we gave on creating compelling in-gallery VR which enhances visitor experience.

This post outlines our approach to overcoming the challenges of designing for this specific use-case. If you want to find out more about the finished product please read our case study, or even better visit the museum.

In-gallery VR

What do we mean by in-gallery VR? Well, different to destination VR experiences which are the attractions in their own right, such as Sir David Attenborough’s First Life, in-gallery VR is designed to support and augment the gallery experience. Think of in-gallery VR as a tool for interpretation and contextualisation, much like a gallery interactive.

On the face of it, this VR use-case doesn’t feel like a perfect fit. VR can be an encapsulated, solo experience with the potential to take you away from reality – or in this case, the physical space you’ve committed time to visit. Our partnership with Science Museum on their first piece of VR was an experiment, which set out to see whether VR could enhance rather than distract from the gallery experience.  Even more interestingly, could it deepen the content messages and would visitors actually welcome it?

Making the invisible visible

The focus for this experiment was the Science Museum’s new Mathematics gallery, which tells the story of how mathematics has shaped our world. Designed by the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, the new gallery spans 400 years of human ingenuity and brings mathematical history to life through the design and architecture of its displays.

Suspended in the heart of the gallery is the Handley Page Gugnunc, an experimental British aircraft built in 1928 and famous for design features, which solved one of aeronautical engineering’s biggest challenges: landing safely! Our mission was to transport this incredible exhibit into an immersive VR experience which is capable of delivering the exhibit’s key content messages and contextualising the gallery’s design concept.

The experience begins in a aircraft hangar, before the plane’s engine splutters to life and the rotating propeller starts to pull the aircraft forward. The player is then transported into the aircraft and the skies around it, as they experience an exhibition flight, which not only shows how the aircraft flies but also how this could only be made possible through mathematics.

Design approach

Whilst designing for VR has many unique challenges, we approached this project like we would any other; with the audience’s needs front of mind.

As a VR experience designed for a museum, there were also a number of unique constraints, including the audience’s diverse digital competencies, physical factors relating to where in the gallery the experience would be conducted, and the facilitation requirements.

We used these constraints to inform a set of ergonomic and design principles, which went on to shape the end product:

1. Design for everyone

We all know how intense VR can be: its greatest strength but also potentially its greatest weakness. What polarises audiences most is their degree of tolerance to motion (sickness), and given our diverse target audience, our ambition was to create an experience that would avoid motion sickness completely.

When your subject is a plane that needs to take off, rise to 5,000 ft and reach speeds of 180kph was an intimidating ambition.

We avoided motion sickness through careful design of sequences (avoiding tracking shots, near / mid ground obstacles) and timely ‘blink’ transitions to keep locomotion to a minimum. We also made prudent use of visual effects and adopted best practice like avoiding fine pattern, textures, bright colours or flashing lights, particularly at the edges of the screen.

2. Design for immersion

Without head-tracking, the best way to create immersive experiences in mobile VR is to put the action around the player. In tests, we determined that the best stereoscopic effect presented 3D objects moving up to 20 meters away from you, so we designed the entire experience to operate within that sweet spot. Additionally, we made sure nothing got too close to the viewer, so as to protect their personal space and stop them violently jerking out of the way.

Key moments like being inside the cockpit, or flying through wispy clouds, or seeing the plane soar overhead were all included to maximise immersion, and became our key moments that paced the experience.

3. Design for Comfort

The opportunity to utilise the full 360 degrees field of view should be treated with caution. The best experiences use only a fraction of this at any given time, utilising the full field only when necessary.

Given our audience would be seated on a bench, their comfortable view would be physically limited. We didn’t want people cranking their neck to look behind them, but we wanted them to be able to work within a comfortable field of view (determined during testing) of 200 degrees horizontally and 135 degrees vertically.

When combined with the stereoscopic sweet spot, we could define our virtual space for the experience to unfold within.

4. Design for facilitation

The project was always conceived as a facilitated experience, however we wanted the burden on the facilitator to be as minimal as possible, As designers, we were in effect treating whoever facilitates the experience as another ‘user’ with needs that we had to design for.

Critical was a clear start and end so the viewer knew when to hand the device back to the facilitator. We also needed a quick way to restart should something go wrong, implemented as a triple tap on the touch panel on the side of the HMD.

We also wanted the viewer to start the experience themselves, so we could take time to get the HMD correctly adjusted for the viewer without the time pressure of the experience beginning. This meant the facilitator needed to instruct them how to begin, and the interface was designed with this in mind.

5. Design to be finite

The Science Museum is a busy museum!  So we had to limit people’s time in this experience, and the simple way we chose to do this was to make it ‘on-rails’. This approach also has the benefit of creating a consistent experience for all viewers, allowing us to deliver fixed learning outcomes and makes the experience much easier to evaluate.

The linearity of the experience also makes its easy to repurpose to different platforms such as WebVR, Cardboard or even Daydream.

Conclusion

The project has been out there for the past 5 months, and whilst no quantitative evaluation has yet taken place, we do have qualitative data which is helping to shape Science Museum’s future VR strategy.

In summary, it’s been a fantastic success, with visitors demonstrating a stronger grasp of the gallery’s ‘airflow concept’, and critical understanding of the plane’s design features which warrant its inclusion in the exhibition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of visitors had never experienced VR before. Almost everyone who tried the experience loved it, and the small majority that had tried other VR said it compared well or was cited as being higher quality.

The experience is just under 5 minutes long, and whilst almost all of the people finished the whole experience, the length has been deemed too long for an in-gallery museum experience with moving crowds and waiting friends.  

The key learning for Preloaded is how much iteration and user-testing is needed to create good VR. Turns out making good VR is just like making good games after all!

 

Selected image credits: Science Museum and Zaha Hadid Architects

Phil is the co-founder and Creative Director of Preloaded. A fanatical gamer and a champion for the power of games which do more than just entertain, he is responsible for the studio’s ‘Games with Purpose’ vision.

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