For many people, virtual reality is simply a way to play games and have cool, enhanced experiences, like touring the White House through 360-degree images. But in the case of a museum in Washington, D.C., it’s a way to make a really cool exhibit accessible for everyone.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian currently has a mind-bending exhibit on display called Infinity Mirrors, by the artist Yayoi Kusama. The exhibit — which is open through May 14 — consists of six rooms containing objects like yellow pumpkins or hot pink spheres, and mirrors on the walls and the ceilings that make everything seem to go on forever.
The problem, though, is the exhibit isn’t accessible for visitors in wheelchairs. People moving through the exhibit have to go through 30-inch doorways and onto narrow platforms (less than four feet wide), according to the Washington Post. And the 180-degree turn that the Americans With Disabilities Act dictates people in wheelchairs must be able to make inside a room just isn’t possible.
But rather than simply leaving this exhibit to only those who can walk through it (who apparently have had some problems of their own), the museum got creative and designed a virtual reality experience that wheelchair-bound individuals can use to see the Infinity Mirrors. “We had to work out how we could make this experience accessible for people with mobile disabilities,” Beth Ziebarth, director of the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Program, told Washington Post.
It took four months, but they achieved just that, after some trial and error and time spent thinking about Kusama’s own goals when creating the original exhibit. Ultimately, the engineer digitally recreated the room as it appears to visitors in real life — without designing actual mirrors, but rather the illusion of mirrors (like black lines where the seams between each mirror would be).
The museum has six Samsung virtual reality headsets available to visitors with disabilities (only people who can’t physically go through the actual exhibit are allowed to use them), and Drew Doucette, who oversees multimedia and technology initiatives at the Hirshhorn, told Washington Post he believes virtual reality “has a home in museums now.”
“Rather than it being something that you play with,” he said, “there’s an actual use for it if it’s around making things accessible to people as best as you can.”
Something tells us this is just the tip of the iceberg with what VR can do for accessibility.
VR has a lot to offer to museums. It provides the users with full immersion (since the users do not have access to the real world), thus the feeling of presence (which is studied by the Thematic Area 4 of the ViMM project, alongside the storytelling and gamification fields) is greatly enhanced. The users will feel like they are really in the area that they are looking at through VR. That could prove very helpful, especially for museums, since not all people are able to visit some museums due to a variety of reasons. That way, through VR they will be able to virtually visit the museum they want and feel like they are really there.