Most of us consider ourselves museum-lovers. They’re great places to visit. Museums provide historical context, connect past and present, and occasionally even offer interesting glimpses of the future. Museum tours, on the other hand, can leave much to be desired. Does the average museum tour really do justice to the riches on display?

Ever gotten lost, trying to follow a museum flyer’s confusing display map? Missed an exhibit that you had your heart set on seeing? Waited in line forever, hoping to gain a better vantage point? Display descriptions also often don’t say enough, and leave you feeling that you still don’t quite ‘get’ whatever it is that you’re looking at, let alone the history behind it. At the end of a museum tour, sometimes it all feels a bit blurred, with nothing really sticking in memory.

Nowadays, more and more visitors value compelling museum experiences. With the emergence of AR (augmented reality), forward-thinking museums are beginning to incorporate AR technology, especially involving audio devices and smart phones. What follows are three ways we believe that AR could be used to greatly enhance visitors’ museum experience via the use of wearable AR devices. From the moment you first enter a museum, imagine being equipped with smart navigation, rich exhibit and display information, with enjoyable interactivity throughout your journey.


1. Smart Navigation: automatically plotting the best route to avoid crowded museum areas

If you’re planning a weekend visit to a museum with multiple floors and galleries, chances are you’ll encounter big crowds. An AR device could significantly improve your museum experience. During peak periods, wearable AR could – in real-time – determine the best route to take, all the while delivering context-specific sounds, music, and navigational guidance, allowing you to focus entirely on what the museum has to offer. What’s more, an AR device could point out things you may otherwise have missed, minus the hassle of clutching a flyer or iPad.

San Francisco’s MoMA is a good example of a museum offering its visitors a unique voice guidance system. MoMa’s smart navigational audio guide has proven quite successful. However, it doesn’t combine both audio and visual elements; the explanatory information it delivers is, unfortunately, audio-only. Imagine instead a wearable AR device that delivered not only audio, but also visual effects, while simultaneously guiding you along the best route. An exciting prospect!


2. Extended information: providing multimedia context behind objects viewed

Augmented reality could be used to simulate multiple experiences, giving visitors a much fuller, richer understanding of featured exhibits. Currently, when viewing (for example) a painting of an important piece of fine china, what you’re essentially seeing is a one-dimensional view, without being able to visually appreciate its true dimensions from different angles, how sophisticated was the process by which it was made, and why it happens to be so important. But, when perceived with the aid of AR technology, a much deeper appreciation of its intrinsic value, appeal, and artistic merit becomes possible.

Most museums these days offer audio guides. Typically, these are either some form of customized audio device or an iTouch/iPad. A wearable AR device, by contrast, could truly serve as an assistant; able to fully describe and explain museum displays and objects, comfortably delivering engaging content and information via vivid multimedia content and information within your field of vision. Such displays might include highly-realistic overlaid 3D models that make it possible to view exhibits and art pieces from multiple angles and at different levels of magnification. As well, a wearable AR device is ideally-suited to sophisticated “storytelling,” thanks to visualizations and multimedia, ensuring that visitors come away with a fuller and more immersive understanding of what they have viewed.


3. Interactive fun: ability to “speak” to historical figures or “join” a futuristic star war

Too often, conventional museum tours can be a bit tedious, largely focused on sightseeing or fixed displays. AR devices offer an exciting alternative, encompassing interactive programs, whether 3D models of exhibits that visitors can “touch,” wield a weapon in a futuristic conflict, or maybe even hold hands and talk with an historical figure at an archaeological site.

Why not, even, an AR game in which children seek out and find historical civil war figures, or fairy tale characters that appear on signs located in store aisles? Perhaps a friend wearing an AR device could snap a photo of you, interacting with a virtual person or object. And then, share that photo on social media with your friends and colleagues. Why not?

From navigational tours and object information displays, to interactive activities, AR has the potential to compellingly blur the lines between what’s computer-generated and what’s real during museum visits. By emphasizing what we actually want to experience, and including sound, sight, touch and perhaps even smell, we’re at the threshold of a much more immersive visitor experience and being able to combine intuitive interactivity with a highly personalized visitor experience.

AR is an innovative technology, which can be proven very useful for museums. It offers partial immersion for the users (as they still have access to the real world) and their feeling of presence (which is studied by the Thematic Area 4, alongside the storytelling and gamification fields) is enhanced. That way, the museum visitors who use AR in a museum will have a more fun and interesting museum experience.