Museums and Virtual Reality: ambivalence, awareness, action

Paper presented on October 4, 2000, by Donald H. Sanders, PhD, president of Learning Sites at the annual meetings of the International Society of Virtual Systems and Multimedia, Gifu, Japan.

posted here October 9, 2019

 I. Introduction

I am honored to be here. And I wish to thank the program committee of the International Society of Virtual Systems and Multimedia and the Virtual Heritage Network for inviting me to participate in this conference and to be able to share my views with you.

Even with over 30 years of immersive human-computer interactions, and over 10 years of rapidly advancing virtual reality technologies, a common lament can still be heard: "But what is it good for?" If we in the virtual heritage industry haven't overcome this reaction yet, we have a long way to go. Perhaps one of the results of this conference will be a shared strategy for promoting awareness in our prospective audience--from scholars, to students, to the general heritage-visiting public. I'm here to talk about how we might convince heritage collections, such as museums or historical and archaeological site collections, to look more favorably on the benefits we have to offer without shooting ourselves in the keyboard trying.

Assyrian winged genius reliefImagine walking into an art museum to view some objects from an ancient Assyrian palace. You walk up to an overlifesize wall relief and admire the sculptural technique; you're intrigued by the strange writing carved into the surface; and you're told by a nearby label that the depiction dates to the 9th century BCE and represents a winged genius (like the image at the left, from the Northwest Palace, Nimrud, ancient Assyria, modern-day Iraq; relief displayed in the Williams College Museum of Art; hover over to enlarge). Interesting, you think to yourself, and then move on to the next object.

NWPalace throne room reconstruction renderOr, on the other hand, you walk into that same museum and through an archway that makes you feel as though you just entered an ancient Assyrian palace. The relief of the genius that you came to see is set into a long wall that simulates the original context of the relief, but the panel next to the figure is a rear projection screen upon which is shown a virtual re-creation of the Palace's other reliefs. As you approach, a figure in the relief appears to come to life and speaks directly to you--describing the Palace, the meaning of the reliefs, and the curious writing. You ask the virtual guide for an explanation of the space and what it was used for. He obliges and then leads you forward toward the next panel (ed note 10/2019: in the original presentation the VR model of the Assyrian palace was shown with some of the effects discussed; that no longer works in current browsers; see instead a recent Learning Sites reconstruction rendering of a room in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud at the left; hover over to enlarge).

Which experience would you rather have?

Why is this kind of interactivity (this kind of integration of artifact with virtual reality display and this kind of participatory experience) lacking in art and history museums worldwide? Doesn't the second scenario have advantages that are valuable, enjoyable, and educational for the visitor? Why aren't cultural heritage museums begging for more of this kind of display? These are questions I wish to discuss here, as well as to outline how we as content providers can change the situation.

Before proceeding further, I must first make a semantic and theoretical distinction: When I speak about VR, I am talking about self-directed movement through a true 3D space; I am not talking about QTVR or other photobubble technology, which I do not take to be true virtual reality. Many types of museums seem to have chosen QTVR as the technology of choice for building what are unfortunately termed "virtual museums" to advertise themselves on the Internet. Few such institutions have, for example, used VRML or similar Web-enabled VR programming tools for their Internet pages, but this is another story beyond my focus here.

Fortress of Buhen reconstructionTo return to the topic at hand. Real virtual reality-based museum exhibits began to emerge during the mid-1980s. By 1994, it was clear to science and technology museums that they had found a visitor magnet in VR exhibits; suddenly "everybody wanted to do it." All kinds of museums tried all kinds of VR-based displays. Museum staff quickly noticed that when VR exhibits were used, attendance doubled, media attention increased, and a new way to educate was emerging, in which the audience actually paid attention.

chapel of Ka(i)pura reconstructionBut then, in the late 1990s, although museums continued to use digital displays, VR-based exhibits had all but vanished (with some notable exceptions, such as at the Natural History Museum, London, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, and the Museo del Corso, Rome).

One would expect that museums with collections of art, architecture, and archaeological artifacts—those precious remains of our global cultural heritage—would have a strong commitment to engaging and educating visitors. The digital re-creation and evocation of past places and peoples can be an intensely exciting and mind-expanding experience. But in fact, art, architecture, and archaeological museums have generally lagged behind other institutional users of virtual reality. VR is no longer a fringe technology, yet museums are ambivalent toward its use. The situation is not the same for science and technology museums, whose use of computer technologies had had a long life before VR came along; they had no difficulty accepting immersive exhibits, though even their enthusiasm for the technology has subsided as they search for relevant content.

Uses of VR todayToday, virtual reality has many applications, but active integration with collections of cultural heritage materials is not one of them. For directors, curators, and exhibit designers in cultural heritage museums, the addition of computer-based exhibits to their galleries has been filled with false starts, mixed experiences, and trepidation. Let me run through a few of these difficulties, based on our experience in dealing with museums and our discussions with museum staff from major art museums in the United States and Europe.

The issues seem to fall into 3 categories:

  1. Concerns about handling the hardware
  2. Concerns about the compatibility of computers and museum objects
  3. Concerns about what to do with virtual reality-based technologies

VR hardware concerns VR museum concerns VR tech concerns

Accurate, inexpensive, and exciting VR exhibits can enhance the museum-goer's experience, but can the VR industry provide such a combination? And if so, will the museums listen? I will conclude with some suggestions for how we can move the interactive computer graphics industry and the museological communities closer together and move toward acceptance of the many advantages that immersive displays have to offer for both the museum and its visiting public.

 II. Current experiences

To paraphrase two of the speakers from a recent symposium at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, entitled Art Museums and the Public: art museums (and we can perhaps extend this to cultural heritage collections in general) up through the early 1960s could be defined as self-contained worlds, clearly defined by hierarchies of prestige and privilege. Museums had a nice building, their own collection, a private staff to look after it, and sufficient finances to maintain an isolated aloofness. Museum visitors, largely institutionally based or individual connoisseurs, usually came to contemplate and admire what was displayed before them. Museums maintained an ideal of self-restraint in their display of art, history, science, and culture, seemingly under no obligation to serve the population at large.

Yet beginning in the mid1980s, with the simultaneous rise of the MTV generation and the Internet, and most clearly during the later 1990s, these same museums suddenly seemed more important than professional sports franchises in their number of visitors, the complexity of their marketing strategies, in the blockbuster nature of new shows, and their sudden shift of conviction to the idea that they exist to entertain the public. Evidence for this shift is noticeable both in the increasing visibility of the education departments of museums, whose staff became actively involved in exhibit design and content, and in the increasing number of museums with community outreach programs, including Websites and commercial advertising campaigns. Exhibits tended to become both academically focused and also available at levels that appealed to a broad audience.

Museums began to automate their collection management systems and to add email and intranet systems. Some museums even added rooms with computers so visitors could explore information about the artworks in more depth on their own, with no impact on gallery traffic. But these computers were usually separated from the actual works of art they displayed, had programs that were comprised primarily of text and still 2D images, and mostly presented information in a format akin to looking through a picture book, but with the addition of hyperlinks. Thus, these new computer-based systems did not embrace the advantages of the digital medium, offering no more than token acknowledgment of the digital revolution.

Both technological visions became cloaked in the visual vocabulary of the previous technology. This is not to criticize; it just happens. Likewise, many interactive graphics created by archaeologists today often present data in ways that reproduce the look, the presentation mode, and even the graphic style of our predecessor's visualization techniques. Once archaeologists recognize this, we'll have more freedom to apply the new multimedia techniques in ways that aren't just digital replacements for traditional codex-based image types.

LSInc VR-based excavation packageIn any case, attendance has continued to increase at art and archaeology museums, primarily due to this new attitude about public service, about being entertaining and engaging. IMAX and OMNIMax theaters have been very successful. But what happened to the interactive displays? Were is the VR? Why are museum staff members, by and large, still not thinking of integrating computer technologies directly into their exhibits? A growing percentage of the public is computer literate and is becoming more and more technologically adept, aware, and demanding. More of us than ever use VR as a device for the analysis, display, and dissemination of cultural heritage information, fig-8-NVAP so why are the message and the medium not getting through to museums (as it has in medicine, physics, job training, and even real estate)? Are museums really serving the needs and interests of the public? What do museums think those interests are?

As museums have broadened their appeal and tried to become more entertaining, entrance fees have increased. At the same time, the type of exhibits--increasingly sponsored by corporations and individual trustees or donors--have become more conservative, safely "politically correct," and wary of backlash from the media and special-interest groups. Exhibits have not become more controversial, challenging, or leading-edge. This goes for exhibit content as well as the technology used to display cultural artifacts. As museums have appeared more open and welcoming, they have in some ways become more self-conscious and conservative.

There are museum purists who firmly believe that the museum's duty is to its collection, not to an ill-defined and fickle audience or to corporate sponsors. That the artifact by itself should remain the supreme rationale for a museums' existence. Many still object to educating visitors by distracting them from the wonder and awe inspired just by being in the immediate presence of the best that the past had to offer. Within this belief system, there is no room for cutting-edge computer technology.

 III. Summary of problems

By late 1995, the growing rush to install VR-based exhibits in museums evaporated. At the same time as virtual reality gained mainstream acceptability, it began to disappear from the public scene. By 1997, most of the VR magazines and journals had ceased publication, VR conferences had declined in number to less than a handful (from dozens just a couple of years earlier), and many of the manufacturers of VR accessories had gone out of business or changed their focus. Nevertheless, virtual worlds continue to be built mainly due to the advent of VRML, the increasing speed of computer processors and graphics cards, better resolution headsets, and the falling prices of the hardware (ed. note 10/2019: at this point in the presentation the interactive VR-based excavation report under development by Learning Sites was shown; since it was VRML-based, it is no longer viewable in current browsers). So the content is still being generated, but the willingness of museums to commit to exhibits that include VR is weak.

Let's review the problems in detail and begin to outline some solutions. We should be able to get the VR community and cultural heritage museums (and cultural heritage sites) together to accept each other's advantages and come to grips with each other's concerns.

These are (in no particular order of significance to museums or of priority for us as content providers):

(1) Concerns about the hardware:

VR hardware concernsOne issue is accessibility of the displays to all segments of the museum-going public: The problem is, can VR-based exhibits be made to work for children, adults, and people with disabilities? Will the viewing angles of displays and resolution of the virtual worlds be adequate for every visitor?

VR hardware solutionsPossible solutions: With judicious planning we can make the content in boom-mounted displays or stereo kiosks viewable for everyone; CAVEs are more difficult, as is any solution in which only a single person is tracked while others watch. Current HMDs already have much higher resolution, faster refresh rates, and wider viewing angles than the early models.

Another Issue: the long-term stability of the technology. The problems are that head-mounted displays break; software freezes; screens get fingerprints on them; projectors and joysticks fail. VR equipment, and computers in general, have gotten the reputation of being unreliable and beyond the ability of museum personnel to fix. Cultural heritage museums cannot afford the downtime and are unwilling to invest in special staffpeople to learn how to maintain the computer systems.

Possible solutions: HMDs and other single-user apparatus (like the VirtualResearch MuseumVR panel and Fakespace's personal viewing stations) are getting more robust, but they are still apt to be mishandled. Computers are getting more reliable, but the VR stuff is still tricky to install and maintain, especially since we like to use the very latest technologies. We need to teach museum staff how to cope with the technology. We need to convince manufacturers to make systems more robust for continuous use by a nontechnical public. We need to design multimedia displays that require a minimum of maintenance. And we need to convince museums that investing in a technically proficient staff is in their best interest in the long run. We cannot ignore the fear of museum staff over being left with a broken exhibit or bills for costly repairs.

Another Issue: the impression that such exhibits are expensive to install and maintain. The problem is, aside from not seeing the benefits of using VR, cost is the most common reason that we have heard for not using the technology. Museums often just don't have the budget for what they consider high-tech extras, tangential to an exhibit's focus. Museums don't want to buy the equipment for only a single show, and vendors are unwilling to loan or lease for short periods of time. Cultural heritage exhibition budgets generally cannot afford to spend 10s of 1000s of dollars or more for hardware on top of the costs to create and program the virtual worlds, especially given their concerns about equipment reliability and universal accessibility. So, vendors must realize that in order to crack the museum market, there are financial realities for which some creative solutions are in order.

One solution to the cost issue is to begin to convince museum personnel that planning an exhibit means also planning, from the beginning, to include immersive technologies, and not to consider digital displays an afterthought, when only a few thousand dollars remain. We have run into this too often. Museums come to us after the show is planned and give us a minuscule budget out of which they expect us to create magic. When we say we can't, given their small budget, then museum staff think that we overcharge, and that reinforces their preconceptions that adding VR-based materials is too expensive.

Further, we also need to show museums that state-of-the-art hardware can have a long shelf-life, be recycled for future exhibits, and retooled for new content for little cost beyond the initial investment. For example, the equipment can be used to display interactive 3D models of objects in storage, making them available when gallery space is not. In this way, building 3D computer models of objects can be seen also as a form of conservation.

Another Issue: images are too low-res and displays cause motion sickness. The problem is that In the early years of VR, virtual worlds were often of low resolution, but that was because the display mechanisms--HMDs, boom displays, and even CAVEs--were also low-res; and because the processors and graphics cards could not handle large or heavily textured worlds. Thus, polygon counts were low, frame rates were too slow, and the worlds looked clunky. Poor-resolution head mounts with poor optics caused motion sickness. VR-sickness got a lot of media attention and helped give VR a bad reputation.

At the same time, graphics in video games and in movies were becoming much more sophisticated. Since views and animation in those media are limited to specific and predetermined movements, it was relatively easy--compared to VR--to develop high resolution, speed, and precise detail. So the initial enthusiasm for just being able to experience VR soon wore off, and museums and the public began to demand better-looking worlds, and more realistic movement and interaction. The VR community could not deliver, and museums and the public were disenchanted with this expensive gadgetry.

Unfortunately for us, as the technology has improved, the reputation of VR has not, and few museums are taking a second look. Yet, HMDs are better, worlds are more complex and detailed, and frame rates are higher. It has taken a while for hardware and software to become good enough and fast enough and of high-enough resolution to be able to deliver worlds up to the public's expectations.

But these expectations have now risen dramatically since the first days of VR, due, I think, mainly to the influence of computer graphic wizardry in movies and the fast-paced, heavily interactive nature of computer games. We need to educate our potential clients and the visiting public about the differences between what we can deliver and what Hollywood and the video game industry are producing. We need to show that comparison between the two is not even appropriate. What we create for cultural heritage is based on the real world and the historical past, not on fantasy. What we create thus communicates more real information per cost dollar--and ultimately is more valuable and more satisfying in the long run--than even the most stunning special-effects movie.

(2) A second group of problems concerns the compatibility of computers and art works in the same gallery space:

VR museum concernsA major issue is, is there a historical rationale for the current reluctance on the part of museums? The problem is that there are historical reasons for museums' reluctance to embrace computer-based technologies. They revolve around the view I mentioned earlier, of the fundamental role of museums as shelters for collections of cultural artifacts; as guardians of irreplacable objects. This view has been around since museums became public institutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also has roots in antiquity, in the whole notion of collecting and showing off a personally selected group of objects. The idea was to exhibit for a discerning crowd the very best sampling of objects that one could afford to obtain. That the relation between object and viewer must remain passive, with only a minimalist label as intermediary. Many museum directors still operate under those principles, even though some museum staff recognize that these days public outreach and education also matter, and that most new visitors were raised on interactive multimedia. These visitors are looking for their experience in a museum to include access to cross references and to immediate interconnections in various media.

Museums now recognize and mostly accept their responsibility to serve a diverse and broad audience, for which no single type of exhibit, presentation, or media can suffice. Yet, including VR and multimedia displays as part of the initial planning for an exhibit rarely occurs. Virtual reality is just not on the minds of curators, exhibit designers, or directors.

solutions for museumsWe can create interesting VR-based solutions for all ages and audiences, that are people-proof, don't cost a whole lot, and that can be re-adapted as new exhibits come along. But we need to recognize the museum's historical self-identity before we can define methods to work with that self-image.

Another issue is the perception that computers will distract visitors from the artworks or will overpower the artwork. The problem is marble statues and a rear projection screen; gold jewelry and a computer kiosk; bronze figurines and immersive 3D environments. These are jarring contrasts to most cultural heritage museum staff, not welcome pairings. There is still a widespread feeling that museums are places of contemplation--that the museum experience should transcend the mundane and dispense with commentary. Technology is seen as worldly and non-artistic, and any additional information is distracting. Nowhere in this view is the conception that the public may appreciate an object more knowing how it was made, why it was made, how it was originally used, or how it came to be in the museum.

Our solution needs to address the question of how do we keep the attention of a large and diverse set of visitors and at the same time, create displays that compete (in cost, appeal, and robustness) with other equally interesting exhibits, and not detract from the real stuff on display. We need to be sensitive to the gallery space as a place to commune with beauty and craftsmanship.

On the other hand, we need to nurture the viewpoint that objects alone do not form a link to the past, that appreciation of the object in isolation of the human stories that surround it presents a shallow window on history and the nature of our shared heritage. Learning more about different cultures and ways of life can only help to promote tolerance of different solutions to life's problems, and acknowledgment of the diversity of the human spirit. A solitary artifact by itself cannot do this. An artifact placed into a simulation of its original context, with explanations of its function, its creation, and its connection to people's lives can.

Museum staff are struggling to define which "public" they are to serve, which public will respond favorably to which type of exhibit. They are being torn between the comfort of the old ways and the demands of a new social and technological definition of the context of the artifacts on display. Some people want change, some do not. In all these deliberations, it is often the technology-based displays that become afterthoughts, not an integral piece of the exhibit strategy. We need to change that.

Another issue: computer displays will slow movement through the galleries. The problem is the perception that computer terminals will cause bottlenecks in galleries. Visitors tend to hog the machines, and some people will get frustrated waiting in long lines to get their turn. Museums need to move visitors through the galleries at a steady, even brisk, pace.

Some solutions: Is it perhaps contradictory that museums' desire to move as many people through exhibits, especially blockbuster shows, is antithetical to their aim to keep the galleries open for silent and prolonged contemplation? There seems to be a double standard in effect, one for blockbuster shows whose aim it seems is to make money and get positive media reviews; and another for the casual visitor who merely wants to wander the galleries and experience the artifacts at his or her own pace.

For the second type of visitor, adding computer kiosks or immersive VR stations does not pose a throughput problem. For the major shows at which crowds will gather, another solution must be found. Large immersive displays can have clocked access that limits a user's time at the computer; galleries can include multiple stations; large screens can be added so that everyone can seem to participate along with the single user driving the virtual world; immersive displays can be designed to accommodate medium-sized groups efficiently; and subtle visual devices can be programmed into the worlds that move people along, either implicitly in the display content or via short sequences of information. We need to educate museum staff about the variety of possibilities available.

(3) our final set of concerns relates to the content of the VR exhibit:

VR content concernsThe issue: uncertainty about what to do with the technology. The problem has something to do with all the recent misuses of the word "virtual" to mean anything from online image libraries to interactive video games, it is no wonder that when museums hear the term "virtual reality" they do not know whether we mean games, entertainment, distance education, simulation rides, or immersive 3D spaces. This is not our fault, but it is unfortunate for us that the term has become diluted, misrepresented, and ill-defined. Museum staff are by and large unfamiliar with the options available for the display of VR-based content. Exhibit design companies are not generally familiar with the display technologies, nor with the resources and techniques needed to create VR content that is accurate and reliable by art-historical, archaeological, and museological standards.

VR tech solutionsThe solution falls to us to right the situation by insisting on a standard and easily differentiated meaning of the term "virtual reality," and by demonstrating through our work how we as cultural heritage content providers differ from those providing other kinds of pseudo VR.

Another issue: where is the content? and where are the credible virtual re-creations? The problem is that museum staff are uncertain about the credibility of virtual re-creations. Where can museums turn to be sure that they are getting accurate virtual worlds that are based on reliable data relevant to the objects on display? Where is the content that has real educational value beyond being a set of fancy pictures?

This should not be a difficult problem for us to overcome. Museums need trustworthy sources supplying them with reliable content with educational, as well as entertaining, features. Educators (in museums and in schools) raise the same issue; they now have access to the 'Net and fast computers, but don't know how to integrate these into their curriculum because of a paucity of applicable content. Museums, too, have had difficulty figuring out how to blend computer screens, real art, and educational content into a coherent gallery experience.

Who can museum staff trust to create accurate 3D re-creations? Many claim to be able to do 3D modeling and convert their models for viewing with VR apparatus. Often we think that too many groups with too little expertise are claiming that they have the qualifications in archeology, architectural or art history, or anthropology to be able to make the proper judgments about the evidence used as the basis for reconstructions. It is easy to get by with simple and simplistic 3D models. It is difficult and expensive to get it right. Yet in order to maintain credibility in the academic world of museums, we must strive to create truly precise, accurate, and detailed interactive content that is as compelling as it is correct. And then come up with creative ways to display it.

Another issue: beyond the wow factor. The problem, can museum personnel and the public be convinced that VR has value beyond mere stunning pictures? Once they have gotten over the excitement of playing with the newness of the technology, can we convince them that there is more to offer?

Our solution. There is reason to believe that the public will be thoroughly engaged and thrilled when viewing our VR displays, provided we get some things right: the images must be high-res, there must be no delay in the tracking, there must be a purpose to the display that is directly discernible and related to the exhibit or specific artifacts, and we should make it clear what in the model is based on educated conjecture and what is based on fact. To quote a famous or perhaps infamous pseudo-archaeologist / adventurer: "archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it is truth you want, the philosophy class is right down the hall." We need to explain that we are interpreters of evidence and facts, not purveyors of truth, despite the word "reality" in our moniker.

Further, we need to educate the public and museums that looking at and responding to virtual re-creations is not much different from learning how to evaluate a photograph or a hand-drawn rendered reconstruction of an ancient site. Our images may be a bit more beguiling and engaging than a drawing or a photograph, and that may lull viewers into a false sense of belief in the validity or truth behind the images, but there needs to be a certain amount of critical thinking behind evaluating the virtual. On the other hand, because it is digital technology, there is no reason why multiple interpretations of the evidence cannot be shown. If we have no difficulty admitting that we don't know all the details for certain; museums shouldn't either.

Virtual recreations need to demonstrate the difference between what is conjectural and what is known, in the reconstructions. We are guilty of not always distinguishing, and in some cases this can lead to erroneous assumptions on the part of viewers. We have to be mindful not to mislead inadvertently. If we do, it will only hurt our cause.

 IV - Conclusion

So, where does that leave us? What would we as VR content providers like so see cultural heritage museums do? We would like these collections to demonstrate a willingness to put adequate funds into building shows that treat digital technology as an integral part of exhibits, not as afterthoughts that are squeezed into corners or that clog up crowd movement due to poor planning. Museums and other cultural heritage collections need to recognize that digital displays are enhancements, ways to pull in more patrons, and are also teaching tools. We would like to see museums understand the value that interactive 3D exhibits bring to the public's understanding of the past.

But what have we learned about the museums' point of view? Their conceptions and misconceptions: VR means games; there is no relevant content; it's too expensive; the hardware is flakey; the tracking is too slow; the images are too low res; galleries are for admiring objects, and technology is out of place there.

We as a community recognize these concerns and are anxious to devise solutions that address them directly. We believe that museums should educate, entertain, enlighten, and engage a broad audience base, and we have no doubt that VR has a place in fulfilling those functions. We must be willing to understand museums' roles, their missions, their varied audiences, and their staff's constraints for exhibits. Also we need to convince them that we can answer their concerns satisfactorily and inexpensively. All we need to do is create good and trustworthy content, up to museological standards, shown in an entertaining environment, that moves viewers through the exhibit efficiently, is people-proof, is cost-effective in the short term, and uses technology that is cost-effective and reliable in the long run. Simple, right?

From real-time rear projection displays, to virtual artifacts for user manipulation, to interactive multimedia presentations; and from single computer terminals, to 3D stereo kiosks, to immersive group installations, we do have a lot to offer. The kicker is that in all of these situations the visitor faces a display alongside of, or integrated with, the real objects that the museums want as their showpieces. We are not dealing with sci-tech museums where the technology is as much the focus as the content. Can't we move the experience beyond the keyboard and mouse?

Let me wrap up with a radical suggestion. So far, most of our VR-based displays have been designed so that the public comes to an exhibit and views our content in conjunction with, or near to, the actual objects. What if we could devise a solution whereby the VR or multimedia visualizations did not compete with the real objects, were nearly invisible within the galleries, and yet occurred in the same space as the actual artworks, not relegated to a separate room or buildings, and were fully functional VR experiences? I think we can do this. How? By using one of the newest and most popular types of devices available now--PDAs integrated with a wearable system--but adding to their capabilities: personal holographic models, augmented reality interface, intelligent virtual agents, natural-language parsers, 3D personal sound, and linked knowledgebases based on n-dimensional semantic networks (some of these features will be discussed in other sessions at this conference).

the futureWe then put a programmed PDA into the hands of each museum patron, for a personalized, interactive, multimedia experience. Never mind the actual technical specs....just imagine.... As Douglas Cruickshank wrote in 1996: "The promise of virtual reality is a computer-human interface which, in a sense, takes the computer out from in between people and the information with which they are interacting."

This was the dream of the early visionaries of VR for education and museum displays. With the current hardware and software, and an understanding of past pitfalls, we can make this happen, if we remember that the study and display of the past need not be constrained by the methods or technologies of the past.

Close this presentation and return to the Index