Museum Virtual Worlds

Bringing Real and Virtual Together

Museums and the Emerging AR Web


Over 700 museum professionals convening last week in Philadelphia for the Museums and the Web 2011 conference saw applications and content expanding from the desktops of museum visitors onto networked exhibits inside of museums and onto a growing collection of mobile devices. The annual gathering, which brings together museum exhibit developers, producers, user-experience designers, artists, curators, software developers, digital media directors, and vendors of content creation tools and services, showcases the latest digital media work in the international museums community. It provides a great opportunity for people to share work, ideas, and strategies for using digital media in it’s many evolving forms to engage visitors both in the museum through networked exhibits and online through websites and mobile applications.

As part of a conference session on augmented reality, I presented a paper which discusses the initial investigations of AR that I’ve been doing here at the Exploratorium. This includes a science inquiry activity about weather in the San Francisco bay which will be part of our Science in the City video program series, and the playful Step Into a Virtual View art installations at February’s After Dark: Get Surreal event. The paper presents details about how these exhibit prototypes were developed, considerations for preparing 3D content for use in mobile AR applications, interface design challenges, and some initial observations of how museum visitors interact with mobile AR exhibits. Read the full paper, “Mixing Realities to Connect People, Places, and Exhibits Using Mobile Augmented-Reality Applications” here.

Planning an Exploratorium AR exhibit prototype- Golden Gate Bridge Fog Altimeter

Also presenting about their work with AR in this session were two museums from the Netherlands. Margriet Schavemaker, from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, discussed that museum’s work with mobile AR using the Layar platform. Their ARTours project, currently one year into a two year project, investigates how their museum visitors interact with AR art and architecture points of interest and exhibits in Amsterdam. Read the paper, “Augmented Reality and the Museum Experience”, co-written with her colleagues Hein Wils from the Stedelijk and with Paul Stork and Ebelien Pondaag from Amsterdam-based design studio Fabrique.

Cutting-edge work was also shown by Ingeborg Veldman and Tanja van der Woude from Science LinX, the science center of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Science LinX is focused on engaging teenagers in STEM disciplines and they experiment with exhibit development methods and tools that can be used to communicate hard to explain phenomena. I was captivated by Ingeborg’s presentation about their project, MIGHT-y, an exhibit and game which uses 2D markers on the faces of cubes to let visitors explore concepts about scale from the film by Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten. It’s a mixed-reality exhibit in which visitors don AR glasses to see “into” the cubes and manipulate 3D animated objects. Use of AR glasses seem new for museum exhibits and still in an early stage of application. Also, it’s expensive. The glasses used in MIGHT-y, Wrap920 video eyewear from Vuzix, are a consumer product geared toward gamers that can be adapted for use in exhibits to provide an immersive virtual reality experience. I tried a portable version of MIGHT-y with the eyeware, and although it was a bit jarring in terms of head tracking lag, it does provide a compelling augmented display. It’s encouraging to see experimentation with different forms of AR in museums. Read their paper, “Science LinX: the neXt level in augmenting science center Xperiences” which was co-written with Bart van de Laar, also of the University of Groningen

MW2011 was a great conference and it was a special honor for the Exploratorium’s website to be recognized with the Best Long-Lived Site Award by the Museums and the Web community!

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.

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