What if you were able to visit the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum and the Guggenheim all in one day? Imagine looking at the world’s most famous masterpieces from your favorite chair in your own home. Imagine being able to look around museums and visit heritage sites that you otherwise might never be able to see because you can’t afford it, or aren’t physically able to travel, or just don’t have the time. Then imagine creating your own museum, populating it with your favorite works of art and sharing your creation with others.
Sounds like science fiction? Not at Europeana! Soon, everything described above will be reality. Not a physical reality but a virtual one. With the advent of 3D computing and affordable head-mounted displays (HMDs) it is already possible to walk around in virtual representations of buildings, cities and other settings. In these virtual worlds, everything is digital so the physical constraints as we know them – things like time, distance and gravity – simply do not apply.
2014: the breakthrough of virtual reality?
Virtual reality (VR) is expected to enter living rooms soon. The California-based company Oculus VR is working on an affordable VR-headset that displays immersive 3D scenes and uses head-tracking sensors to make the virtual environment respond to head turns. Initially, the glasses will be used mostly for immersive 3D games – many developers are already adapting their games for the Oculus Rift headset. The market for games is already in the billions of dollars and this will only increase it.
But there will be many more applications of VR besides games. Already, virtual reality is used to train aeroplane pilots and to help people overcome the fear of heights. Through VR, scientists can interact with chemical compounds as though the scientists themselves were the size of a molecule. Architects can give guided tours of buildings that don’t even exist yet. All of this technology is coming down in price so that it will soon be affordable to the likes of you and me. In fact, your current computer is probably already powerful enough to render 3D worlds, and virtual reality glasses such as the Oculus Rift will probably only cost about $300 when they’re released next year.
Virtual cultural heritage experience
Virtual reality will offer great opportunities for the world of museums, galleries and archives. A first step would be to recreate existing museums online so that people from all over the world could visit them from exactly where they are. And then each of us could curate collections and put them in an environment of our choosing: how about looking at some of Rembrandt’s paintings in one of the workshops he worked in? Or what about a museum in which you could change the entire collection with a press of a button? How about stepping into a painting from Monet and being able to walk around the water-lily pond?
At Europeana, we have been experimenting with this new technology. We asked the Dutch design agency ArchiVision to develop a 3D model of a small fictional museum (the ‘EUseum’) in which you can marvel at some of the masterpieces from the Dutch Rijksmuseum. For this demo, we used a development kit for the Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses. Using the headset, you can ‘walk’ around and see the paintings at much closer range than would be possible in reality. When you turn your head, your view changes accordingly, giving you a sense of actually being in the virtual museum. To get the idea, just watch the video in which you’ll see some of our staff members enjoying the demo!