Virtually in your local museum

In 1994, Nintendo introduced something called Virtual Boy. No, it wasn’t a robot that drank from the milk carton or left its smelly socks on the sofa, rather it was one of the earliest virtual reality gaming systems available for consumers. And it was a failure. It was pricey, uncomfortable to use and looking at the graphics were more or less like looking at a Game-Boy up close and in 3D. Also, its name probably didn’t help.

The history of technology is littered with the smoking wreckage of inventions that were ahead of their time or had otherwise jumped the gun on some supporting aspect of their design. Until recently, VR had been one such invention. The problem with past iterations of VR lay in the differing rates of development of the various technologies necessary for a fully satisfying experience. Computer animation and movement tracking haven’t evolved at the same rates. But sometimes, trajectories converge; that’s what we were being told anyway.

A hot sunny day in Rome c. 100 AD. Not a full house, though.

So it was with excitement that a couple of colleagues and I (plus my internal virtual boy) headed to the Canadian War Museum to attend a demonstration of a VR program by a company called RadicalVR. RadicalVR has produced an immersive tour of the Roman Colosseum called Colosseum Lives which dovetailed well with CWM’s summer exhibition Gladiators and the Colosseum–Death and Glory. I chatted with industry colleagues while waiting my turn and nearly missed my chance to have the goggles and head-set strapped onto place. But I made it, and no sooner was the equipment in place than I found myself no longer at the Canadian War Museum, but instead in a curious, animated version of first‑century Rome.

The headset is comfortable to wear, but you look a bit silly.

The Colossus of Nero that stood in front of the Roman Colosseum possibly into the third century AD.

You rotate and move backwards and forwards in the virtual world with this garden-variety gaming controller.

No matter what direction I turned my head, the image changed seamlessly, smoothly and without pixilation—just like turning my head in reality world. Using a standard game controller’s arrow keys, I moved up the steps, through the arches and right onto the field of battle. It’s oddly dream‑like. Time slowed down and I began to lose sense of my bodily reality as I adjusted to this new way of moving through the world. “What’s that blue bubble?” As I “walked” toward this bubble, a narrator began to speak about some local aspect of the great Roman structure. I turned my head to look up at the sunshades surrounding the stadium and then over to the emperor’s box. I turned and took a close inspection of a gladiator’s armour as I stood next to him in the sunshine. Luckily they haven’t so far worked out a smell feature—I doubt that’s an experience I’d want to enjoy twice.

Each image is from a slightly different point of view and when combined through close-up lenses, they resolve into a single 3D image. Nothing new here.

A monitor showed us exactly what the visitor was seeing in her goggles as she looked around the Roman Colosseum.

The Oculus VR system from the inside.

Admittedly the quality is not absolutely there yet. But it’s close. The animation for this program is not at movie level, but such quality is available. You still see the pixels and colour bars in the monitors, but the experience of seamless movement glosses over such details. Mind you, a couple of people (including our director) got a little seasick (or cybersick) during the demonstration and the presenter estimated that around 20 per cent of visitors are likely to feel a bit iffy. Nevertheless, the potential for this sort of thing in museums is still vast. The ability to place your visitor convincingly in the midst of a specific historic event or location is powerfully attractive and the means of tracking movements and body positions are quickly improving the experience. Taking it up a notch, a Russian company, Virtusphere, has invented a giant stationary ball that revolves on rollers as you walk inside it—sort of like an omnidirectional hamster wheel. This allows you to stroll about in your immersive gaming world without barking your shins on the coffee table or falling over the cat.

OK, this doesn’t work very well, but the basic rules of 3D VR stereo imagery were worked out in the nineteenth century.

VR’s immediate future seems to be trending toward something a little more low-end—a consumer version that uses your smart phone. Oculus is developing a product called Gear VR and there are other companies (vrAse, Homido) doing the same. As you can see from the web link, they look sort of like souped-up versions of Victorian stereoscopes. The idea is to transform a smartphone screen into an immersive experience; it’s quite possible the technology could be used by museums to present small-scale 3D products. It’s all fascinating, fun and full of potential. We’re definitely going to…wait for it... keep an eye on VR as the technology continues to improve.