There is no doubt that the thoughtful and appropriate use of VR has the potential to revolutionise the museum experience. But in such an innovative and fast-changing space, there can also be plenty of obstacles.

In our latest livestream, we took a look at the opportunities and challenges of VR through the lens of a Preloaded live project, Modigliani VR – The Ochre Atelier, which is installed in gallery at Tate Modern, London until April 2nd, 2018. Scroll down to read the audience Q&A or take a look at the video to:

  • Hear the key learnings and insights from Tate’s use of in-gallery VR.
  • Explore the challenges and opportunities VR offers Museums and their visitors.
  • Learn about different types of VR for museums, the technology choices and their affordances.
  • Discover design principles for creating successful experiences tailored to museum audiences.

We’re really excited about the possibilities for VR within arts and culture. If you are too and you’d like to get in touch to continue the conversation, contact us.

How can VR transform the visitor experience Q&A

Take a look at the Q&As from the livestream below. We’ve captured the questions we had time to answer live, as well as some of those we couldn’t. Thanks again to Hilary Knight for taking part, and sharing Tate’s learnings from this live project.


Visitor Feedback

Q: Has visitor research shown that the experience created empathy?

Hilary: Feedback has been phenomenal, and we’re delighted. People who are new to VR are feeling amazed and wowed but people who are not new to VR, who have been through many experiences, are enjoying a more contemplative experience and finding it just as engaging.

Tate and Preloaded conducted considerable user-testing, and collected visitor feedback both formally and online – you can see examples of this feedback in the slides. Both user-testing feedback and visitor feedback suggests that people are enjoying it and the response we see most often is one that cites empathy. People say that they felt very moved or amazed, and many felt the reality of Modigliani’s circumstances, not the myth.

Phil: There’s also an expectation that new technology will appeal to a younger audience but actually the way interpretation works in a gallery is quite traditional. We were hoping for younger users to be able to connect on a more emotional level with the artist, from an experience that’s more visceral and visual, but it was also really nice to see the older audience – the traditional Tate audience – connect equally well and talk passionately about the experience.

 

Q: Have there been any difficulties? E.g. users feeling sick, difficulties accommodating glasses in the headsets, or any other challenges around accessibility and inclusion?

Hilary: We’ve had no reports of people people feeling sick at all. I think it helps that the audience is seated.

Phil: One of the reasons that people feel sick in VR is locomotion, but the technology is so good here so there’s no movement at all. With the six degrees of freedom, as you lean forward, the world moves with you.

Hilary: We have had a few incidents of people with glasses feeling that the headset is not very comfortable, and some of the bigger, ‘hipper’ glasses not entirely fitting within the headset, so that is a bit of a challenge.

As far as accessibility and inclusion, as a public sector organisation, at Tate we try to make everything we do available to everybody. Two of the stations in the space are wheelchair accessible and we have space available nearby for carers, for example. What we’re not able to do within the technology is things like subtitling because that doesn’t work in VR, so we had to find ways around that. It’s slightly clunky, but we’ve done things like making the transcript of all of the narration available from the visitor assistants and online. If you are visually impaired then you can enjoy the diegetic sound and you can enjoy the narration, but there’s no audio description facility and I think part of that is the technology. We tried to do as much as we possibly could but there are some limits and we have to acknowledge them.

 

Experience

Q: What was the research process like? What type of research process did you go through in order to ultimately get to the solution?

Hilary: A fairly forensic one, I think, with curators and the conservators working in collaboration. This was a project that, from Tate’s point of view, spanned different departments that don’t often work together. We were looking at original source material including letters, diaries and some photography (although there are no photographs of Modigliani’s studio itself).

Phil: Excitingly this research was all happening while we were making it, with a fixed deadline. We were discovering things as we were moving forward so this was very much a live project. This also meant we had to change our approach as we went along – having discussions around adding new objects, taking objects out and moving things around the space.

Hilary: When we started and were in the ideas phase, scoping things out and beginning the research, our curator got in touch with the owner of the final studio. This was a private property and a space that nobody could go into, but we were very lucky to be given access to go in and assess the space. That’s when the decision came to use that studio, because it’s a gift. We had our guiding principles that were holding us true to ourselves, and being able to map that against this opportunity told us that this was the right thing to do.

Phil: The prospect of having a place we could go and build an authentic story around, that was completely new and that nobody had ever told, was amazingly exciting.

 

Q: Did you consider incorporating objects into the actual space so that they are put into context when visitor put on the VR headset?

Hattie: Even though specific objects you see in the virtual reality space aren’t seen externally, the experience itself does represent artworks seen previously on the visitor journey, plus sketches they’ve seen on their journey, and also puts into context the artworks that they will go on to see.

Hilary: So if you consider artworks as art objects – then yes we did!

 

Q: Can people handle objects within the experience?

Phil: Our early view on this was that, even though Vive is an amazing high-fidelity, room-scale VR experience, we felt very uncomfortable about allowing people to walk around in it, given that people have potentially never experienced VR before. So the actual experience is seated. Also, from my experience, if you give people controllers they spend 2-3 minutes learning how to use them, and we didn’t have that time. So as mentioned previously, for the installed version of this experience there are no controllers and you can’t see your hands, and therefore handling objects would just feel strange. The interactions are triggered through gaze which has become quite a simple convention for interaction, and actually delivers the level of agency we were looking for. But there is another version of this experience delivered on Viveport which is what we call the ‘standalone experience’, which allows you to move around the space with controllers on your own volition, picking up objects and manipulating them how you want to. We tried to include the best of both worlds, but certainly the installed version adheres to our low-threshold principle.

 

Q: What do you think is the optimum length of time for a VR experience?

Phil: We’ve done a few at Preloaded now, and have discovered that one of the challenges of VR is that it’s very overwhelming, and the cognitive load so high, that you need space to be able to absorb and take things in even for very small amounts of learning. Handley Page, for example, was 5 minutes and we felt that was the shortest it could go before you lose the ability to take in the information. For Tate, it’s slightly longer, and I think a great length.

Hilary: The experience is about six and a half minutes. There are people saying “that was amazing I could stay in there all day!” but we had to balance the desire for people to linger and enjoy it with getting as many people through the experience as possible so that everyone can enjoy it.

Facilitation

Q: How many stations are there, and how many staff operate the VR for the exhibition? Or was this self-operating?

Hilary: It’s not self-operating, but it’s not a 1:1 visitor to staff ratio either. We have one person outside the space helping with queueing and explaining the experience to people in the queue. We then have three or four people in the room to assist at the nine user stations.

We spent three days training staff in order to optimise the visitor experience and facilitate use of the headset. They also troubleshoot minor technical difficulties.

Phil: It’s interesting thinking about where this technology is going. You could begin to hypothesise that you would need less facilitation as audiences become more familiar with the technology. I think we’re at a stage now where it’s so new that visitors need more support, but in a year’s time perhaps the controllers will be deemed low-threshold because the audience is more aware of them, and the facilitation could be much less.

 

Q: How have the lines been? Do some visitors leave unsatisfied because they didn’t get the opportunity to view?

Hilary: We spent a lot of time thinking about queueing and how we were going to get people in and out. I’ve never had to think about queueing before and now I’m a pro. Our original plan, because we wanted to get as many people through the experience as possible and we didn’t want people to feel disappointed, was to have tickets that people could pick up on their way into the exhibition with a timeslot. We would then know which visitors were going to do the VR and help manage availability expectations. However by lunchtime on the opening day we had abandoned that completely because of observable user behaviour. We noted that people with tickets were getting to the room and feeling that they had seen enough, or were tired and wanted to get a coffee, and for whatever reason they didn’t want to do it. At the same time, people who hadn’t picked up a ticket because they didn’t like the idea of it when they started the exhibition now got to the room and wanted to have a go. So we changed to a one in, one out queuing system and that works really well. We are very strict that there is no queueing into the gallery space where there is art hanging, so there is a length limit, but a visitor assistant is on hand to recommend a look back at rooms of the gallery, by which time the queue will generally have gone down. The maximum wait time is around 25 minutes. The entrance is the same as the exit, so people arriving are often asking the people leaving whether the experience is worth the wait, and thankfully those people are saying yes.

Process

Q: How long did Preloaded take to complete the project from start to finish? Did the VR experience need any software or technological maintenance whilst live?

Phil: The project took approximately six months with a large chunk of this time taken up through ongoing extensive research, plus prototyping and concept development. The hardware requires some maintenance, with supplementary devices on hand to transfer in and out whilst maintenance is taking place.

 

Q: How did you test with the audience, and who ran your user testing?

Phil: Preloaded ran the user testing, on site at the Tate Modern, in a space that emulated the final gallery space as closely as possible. Going through the process of user testing to ensure a quality product was critical. Great effort went into testing four or five times, from the first playable example and then after every key milestone. Hundreds of different people were involved, with groups representing Tate’s typical audience segments.

 

Q: This VR experience is fully computer modelled. Are there ways of generating content through 3D video recording?

Phil: There are absolutely ways of doing so and we did consider it early on. You can capture environments through Lidar or Photogrammetry for example. Unfortunately this wouldn’t have worked for Tate as these methods are generally used when you want to capture the environment in its current state, and there is a lot of clean up work required in order to get it into a game-ready asset. Modigliani’s studio has changed considerably since he used it and with such a short time frame, the only things that really mattered in terms of the environment in its current state were the dimensions of the space and ensuring we had good reference for lighting.

 

Q: Would this project have been possible without HTC’s close support?

Phil: The technical implementation was a collaboration between Tate AV, Preloaded and HTC. HTC Vive sponsored the VR installation and were involved throughout the process to ensure the best implementation of the technology. The intuitive nature of the technology makes it perfectly possible to run projects of this nature without close support like this, but naturally given the nature of the partnership, their involvement in this instance was fantastic and important.

 

Q: What percentage of Tate’s VR experience budget went to hardware vs content?

Hilary: The whole experience was sponsored by HTC Vive – they paid for the software and they also supplied the hardware. So actually 0% of our content budget went on the experience. Without the sponsorship, it would have been a significant chunk – I’d say around a third of the budget would have gone on hardware.

We’ve been up and running for a few months now and one of the things that we are learning is how well that hardware stands up to the level of use it’s receiving.

Distribution

Q: Has there been any thought of making it available through a software distribution platform for home use?

Phil: There is another version of this experience, delivered on Viveport, which is the standalone experience. It allows you to move around the space with controllers on your own volition, picking up objects and manipulating them how you want to. The use case not only suggests a more familiar VR user, but also someone using at home, with no limit on time to explore, as opposed to in-gallery where visitor flow is a key consideration in addition to catering to first time users.

 

Q: Is it possible to offer a comparable experience to online users who can’t visit a museum?

Phil: Whenever we start a project we try to identify what our target platforms are. If there is a requirement to put some content onto the web then you can conceive your experience in a way that can downgrade it to suit that. Three degrees of freedom VR – the sort of experience you’d get on Gear VR or Daydream – can easily port to 360 video which can then be experienced on a laptop or a tablet. I think it’s just about making sure you identify what those requirements are upfront.

 

We’re really excited about the possibilities for VR within arts and culture. If you are too and you’d like to get in touch to continue the conversation, or if you think VR could work for you/your institution, contact us.

Hattie Foster

Hattie is Head of Strategy at PRELOADED. She explores the meaningful application of technology and games for engagement within arts, culture and beyond.