For museums, Augmented Reality is Next Frontier

Published 26 August 2019, 20:14

Mae Jemison, the first woman to go into space, stands in the middle of the room and prepares to become digital. Around him, 106 cameras capture the image in 3-D, which will then make it a life-size hologram when viewed through a Hololens headset.

Jemison is recording what will be the introduction of a new exhibition at the Intrepid Museum of Marine, Air and Space, which opens tomorrow as part of the Smithsonian's annual Museum Day. At the exhibition, visitors will wear a HoloLens headset and watch Jemison appear before their eyes, take them on a Space Shuttle Enterprise tour - and through space history. They were invited to explore both physical (such as Enterprise) and digital artifacts (such as the AR star galaxy) while Jemison introduced women throughout history who made important contributions in space exploration.

Interactive museum exhibitions like this are becoming more common because augmented reality technology is cheaper, lighter, and easier to make. A few years ago, the equipment itself - a dozen HoloLens headsets, which visitors could wear when they went through exhibitions - would be out of reach. Now, as technology becomes easier to use and experiences easier to make, museums increasingly turn to them as a way to engage visitors - whether it perfects the framework seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, or follows a Mars tour with astronaut Buzz Aldrin (as hologram, of course).

At Intrepid, holographic Jemison is not just a guide for the future. He is also part of the exhibition, an opportunity for visitors to come face to face with important figures from space history. "I hope I take them on this tour, so that makes it a little more real," he said.

Museums have long relied on technology to provide context for their exhibits - whether through information videos, audio guides, or smartphone applications. Augmented reality, in some cases, is only the next iteration. This gives curators the opportunity to overlay more information on existing exhibits, and to make visitors more involved with what is seen.

"Cultural institutions ask, 'How do we ensure our relevance in the future?'" Said Chris Barr, director of art and technology innovation at the Knight Foundation, who gave more than $ 1 million this year to support museums using new forms of technology. "We see technology as part of the device they use to do that. There are amazing opportunities, especially around technology like augmented reality, to engage visitors."

Some museums have experimented with AR to bring back damaged or damaged artifacts into their collections, or to recombine existing collections. This year, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is working with a design agency frog to create an "augmented reality gallery" to showcase some of René Magritte's works, which are currently on display. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History displays an exhibition, called Skin and Bones, which allows visitors to bring to life the museum's skeleton collection with the AR application on their cellphones. Even the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has enlivened one of its exhibits, allowing visitors to learn more about Lithuanian villagers displayed in the Tower of Faces display with companion AR tools.

"Museums are starting to get smarter and smarter about how we personalize [the experience of visiting museums], and how we make those experiences as magical as the art you see," Barr said.

The Intrepid exhibition took him one step further, using the HoloLens headset to bring Jemison with visitors as he guided them through the shuttle. "We want to ensure that while our artifacts create this interesting and tactile opportunity, we want to ensure that we capture the current generation in the language they speak," said Susan Marenoff-Zausner, President of the Intrepid Sea, Museum of Air and Space.

Behind the scenes
Intrepid collaborated with Microsoft, who filmed Jemison at Mixed Reality Capture Studio in San Francisco. The studio room accommodates a combination of RGB and infrared cameras that capture scenes in 360 degrees, then create a mesh map in 3-D. "Infrared cameras see a very dense speckled version of what is in the scene, which is eaten by a computer vision algorithm for lunch," said Steve Sullivan, who heads the Microsoft Mixed Reality Capture Studios program.

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