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Would you like a virtual museum experience?

A cartoon presenting two opposite views on the value of moving art into the cyberspace. Would it be like the “real” thing? Image credit: Suhita Shirodkar, Wired

The availability of virtual reality -VR- technologies has prompted several museums to go on-line (that is obviously possible without using VR, but VR can provide an immersive experience that is not available by just browsing the web through a screen) to offer a much wider audience the possibility of experiencing the museum and its masterpieces.
The whole point is in this word: “experiencing”. Would an on line experience, mediated by VR be au pair, or at least comparable, to an on-site experience? Whilst most people would agree that being on-site is quite a different thing from being connected through the cyberspace, a significant subset of them is willing to acknowledge that VR can be second best in terms of experience.

Wired published an interesting article that goes a step further: “Virtual Museums challenge the Art’s world status quo” suggesting that the Virtual Experience can actually “add” something that is not present in an on-site experience (although, obviously, you can also adopt VR, and AR, augmented reality, on-site to deliver that to visitors).

For sure, the pandemic has resulted in a lockdown of museums and many of them have searched and experimented different ways, through the cyberspace, to let people visiting. Moving museums to the cyberspace ot let people browse their masterpieces is not new, of course. What is new is the ever progressing technological advances that make for a much better -realistic- experience.

Take the VOMA. It is not a physical museum that is also made accessible on line. It is a virtual museum existing only in the cyberspace (watch the clip). Its creator, Stuart Semple, has dreamed of such a museum for many years and now he feels that the technology has reached a point where it can support this.

You no longer have any limitation, a virtual museum can accommodate as many people as desired, at the same time providing a customised, unique experience to each of them. If there are more masterpieces to show the galleries can be extended, no carpenter work required. No need to package them for shipping nor insuring them.

As technology progresses you might even increase the experience: as an example, haptic interfaces would let visitors to touch a painting feeling the texture of the brush strokes, something that would clearly be a no-no in a physical premises! Notice that these extended experiences might become available to on-site visitors using augmented reality, an example of how virtual reality can feed back into reality.

This brings me to the conclusion we have reached in the Digital Reality Initiative: our future world will be a seamless continuum across atoms and bits and that will become our reality.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.


  1. Hello Roberto,

    thanks for the interesting post! Virtual museums offer unique opportunities, for example discovering the 7 wonders of the ancient world, or seeing the world through the Vincent van Gogh’s eyes (as offered in the travelling van Gogh expositions). On the other hand, good museums stimulate all 5 senses, difficult to to reach by virtual museums.

    Museums support us to get into contact with arts & history to inspire our five senses sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. The challenge is that not all people live in the radius of such places. Particular expositions are unique to their locations, people may have to take an intercontinental travel to visit them. Of course, there are virtual exhibits, but so far they can only address two of our five senses: sight and hearing. Due to this, they cannot replace the in-person visit. Nevertheless, virtual reality can extend the overall experience. For example, the Ferrari Museum offers on its website the possibility to (re-)discover some of the displayed items. In a trivia, users must answer a question to unlock the regarding memorabilia and include it into the virtual collection. For people who never visited Maranello, a motivation to plan a trip. For visitors, a positive experience to activate again one’s memories. This not limited to the seen, but remembering all senses, including taste and touch.

    Perceiving an experience with a higher number of senses makes the memory strong and later easy to recall (The Ferrari Museum offers high-quality local food and the possibility to drive a Formula One car in the simulator). Augmented and Virtual Reality is ideal to recall memories. Museums can take advantage of this with 1) let visitors experience their expositions with all senses (AR) and 2) let them revive them using a limited number of stimuli (VR).

    For this I could imagine that museums will by hybrid.

    • Good points Patrick. However, most museums today will offer you a bi-sensorial experience only. You cannot touch the exhibits, smelling is mostly related to the ambient, not to the exhibit and taste is out of the question. Of course, there are exceptions but they are few.
      Haptic interfaces are not commonly available but I bet that by the end of the decade our smartphone will provide some sort of haptic experience as part of augmented reality interface and that will be used both in museum, on site, and for virtual exhibit.
      I guess, as for several other areas of digital transformation, the point is not to surrogate reality through a virtual reality, rather to create a new -extended- reality through virtual reality.