Museum Virtual Worlds

Bringing Real and Virtual Together

Augmented Reality — A Looking Glass into Other Worlds: AR Artist and Researcher Helen Papagiannis Explores Wonderment and Play in Exhibit Design


A few months ago, I was introduced to Helen Papagiannis, an artist, designer, and researcher working with the emerging technology Augmented Reality (AR). I was captivated by the way her playful AR exhibits and installations drew people in through touch, video, and sound. She’d recently exhibited her work at the Ontario Science Center and was exploring ways to engage museum audiences with their sense of discovery and wonder. I caught up with her recently and asked her some questions about the ideas behind her work.

The Amazing Cinemagician: New Media Meets Victorian Wonder” exhibition by Helen Papagiannis at the Ontario Science Center, May-Sept., 2010, Toronto, Canada. Photos: Pippin Lee

When did you start experimenting with augmented reality?

I began experimenting with AR in September 2005. When I saw AR for the first time, I was so entranced I think I entered a permanent state of wonder with the technology. And it was all very simple: a bare bone 3D virtual cube seemingly appearing in my physical space. It was completely astonishing! I went into mad scientist mode from there tinkering, prototyping, and dreaming of the creative possibilities for AR. Five and a half years later, and I’m still riveted.

What are some of the challenges that you’re exploring in your AR work?

When I began working with AR, the challenges were largely around the technical constraints. It has been important for me to work with what is at hand, right now, not tomorrow, or 6 months from now. I always ask, ‘How can we realize this now and make it compelling within the parameters?’ My process has entailed allowing the constraints to guide the work, then finding ways to push beyond those boundaries to create something new.

I strongly believe AR is emerging as a new medium and it will come to play a large role in entertainment and information sharing. The challenge at hand is to continue to investigate how best to apply the medium and really elevate it creatively, and to do this as a community of artists, engineers and industry. We need to identify what is truly unique about this new form, and how we can best leverage these characteristics to tell new stories and create engaging experiences that are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

How can museum audiences experience AR?

We’re beginning to see more AR applications in museums, which is very exciting. AR is becoming more accessible and affordable, including the use of personal devices that museum visitors may already have at hand, such as smart phones. AR can be used to provide additional information about objects in a museum’s collection and to enable experiential learning through discovery and play. Wonderment, as discussed in my TEDx talk, is an important part of my work in AR. For me, AR fosters a great sense of wonder as a looking glass into another world and can be used to further ignite curiosity and inquiry in a museum setting.

Museum audiences can experience AR through various viewing devices including tablets equipped with cameras, large wall-mounted screens or kiosks, and mobile devices. Here are a few contemporary examples:

Natural History Museum’s interactive film “Who Do You Think You Really Are?” as well as Metaio and Louvre-DNP collaboration

Examples include my Wonder Turner installation at the Ontario Science Centre, and Total Immersion’s environmental kiosk

Mobile devices:
An unofficial exhibit at the MoMA using Layar and one of my recent projects “AR Hanging Mobile” using ARToolkit for iPhone.

What limitations of current ways that people can experience AR art works and installations would you like to get beyond?

I’d like to see more work move beyond the single viewer experience in AR and engage larger audiences in a simultaneous viewing and even collaborative interactive experience. I think this is particularly relevant for museums in designing and producing AR experiences. My early work in AR started out with books and other small hand-held objects creating an intimate experience for a single user at a given time and then expanded to a more collaborative exploratory setting with multiple users engaging in an act of play and discovery together. There’s a great opportunity for enabling a larger group dynamic at work in AR with multi-users. This can combine visitors both on and off-site.

Let’s also make the work so wondrous people forget they are looking at a screen or using a device! I’m continually exploring ways to heighten “presence”, a term used in AR to describe the illusion of non-mediation.

Helen Papagiannis is an artist, designer, and researcher specializing in Augmented Reality (AR). She is presently completing her Ph.D. at York University in Toronto, Canada and is a Senior Research Associate at the Augmented Reality Lab (Department of Film, Faculty of Fine Arts). Helen’s mixed reality art installations were recently featured in a solo exhibition at the Ontario Science Centre, and at TEDx, where she was also an invited speaker. Prior to her augmented life, Helen was a member of the internationally renowned Bruce Mau Design studio, where she was project lead on “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design”, a touring exhibition and book published by Phaidon Press.

Author: Rob Rothfarb

Rob Rothfarb directs Web development at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum of science, art, and human perception. He develops online exhibits, educational resources, and technical infrastructure for the museum. He’s interested in the application of interactive media technologies to the development of dynamic, networked content and media infrastructure to support exploration, communication, and learning. His background includes experience in software development, computer graphics, interaction design, and digital video. Rob’s interest in community and interactive 3D technologies led to work with several pioneering virtual world software companies and to interactive multimedia projects for museums including the National Gallery of Art and the National Constitution Center.


  1. Really interesting presentation. Looking at relevant applications for Natural History museums in our project (, so many many “sparks” created from this! Thanks a lot!

  2. Thanks very kindly Nikos for your kind words — best of luck with your project!

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