How VR and AR Will Change How Art is Experienced

Young female at startup using VR goggles.

For artists and audiences alike, art has served a variety of purposes throughout the course of art history: to document what a civilization holds culturally relevant, to offer ceremonial or religious purpose, or to explore new ideas and media. Artists have long reflected, manipulated, and transformed reality into fantasy and fiction into truth, exploring a wide range of media to communicate ideas and concepts. Museums today play a vital role in how we interpret and experience those ideas, and they have become increasingly more reliant on technology to help facilitate how we experience art.

Virtual reality and augmented reality have grown to be a more commonly utilized tool for interpretation of ideas. In this article, we explore the use of VR and AR in museums, and how these technologies impact they way in which we experience art.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is an immersive technology experience. Through head-mounted displays, headphones, and sometimes hand controls or props, VR strives to convince users’ brains that they’re located somewhere else; transporting them (virtually) to a new location. Exhilaration and fantasy of the virtual reality experience are tenets of the technology, and as a result, VR is widely used by the video gaming community.

What is Augmented Reality?

AR serves to supplement, alter, and enhance reality as it already exists. It’s an integration of technology into one’s daily life, providing a “filter” of sorts: AR enhances things that we interact with and see, feel, and hear. Social media and photo filters, for example, are everyday examples of the technology in use.

Other examples of augmented reality in real-time use include: retailers such as IKEA implementing the technology to allow shoppers to envision how furniture would look throughout their household, surgeons being able to visualize certain procedures for practice, and weather channels improving the television experience for viewers by illustrating extreme weather and its effects.

How are VR and AR Different?

While VR and AR are related fields, they have a few fundamental differences. VR is implemented by a device such as a headset for a fully immersive experience. Even though it creates a new reality, you either need the headset or must go to a place that has headsets with the technology in order to experience it. In contrast, AR can be more scalable: individual experiences on a smartphone or tablet can be taken anywhere, while full-scale museum exhibitions can offer technology that provides a larger, more immersive experience.

The nuances of the two technologies underscore their primary difference: the user experience. VR creates an entirely new world, tricking the brain into thinking it’s somewhere it’s not. AR alters the user’s existing environment. Despite their distinct features, both provide vast opportunity innovation in the art world.

How Museums Apply VR and AR

As practical applications of the technologies become more readily available, VR and AR have impacted the disciplines of art, science, medicine, and beyond. Museums in particular, as facilitators of thought and interpretation, have embraced the use of the technologies, either through the use of smartphones, through headsets transporting visitors to alternate universes, through immersive experiences, and so on. In many ways, VR and AR have helped bridge the gap between these formerly phone-free zones and a world of technology-based art experiences. We’ve outlined some of the best ways museums are embracing augmented and virtual reality today.

The Museum of Stolen Art

Image Credit: Hacking the Heist

What’s to be done when art goes missing? In the Museum of Stolen Art, stolen or missing art takes center stage with the adoption of AR. The gallery space consists of wall frames that display markers—these markers operate like barcodes and when viewed through a smart device, one of the missing pieces appears. This is an example of how AR does not have to utilize exceedingly complex technology in order to be impactful. By leveraging basic code to make pieces appear, the exhibition provides a look at what the galleries would look like with the missing pieces installed in their original locations. While it’s certainly not the same as seeing one of these pieces in person, AR makes it possible for audiences to understand their impact.

The Kremer Museum

Image Credit: Sotheby’s

Exhibition: The Kremer Collection (October 2017)

While some museums utilize VR for a specific piece, exhibition, or project, The Kremer Museum went far beyond—it created an entire VR museum with no need for a designated physical space. The Kremer Collection, a privately owned selection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art, developed a fully immersive museum that allows “visitors” to take a closer look than a traditional museum experience allows. Unveiled at Sotheby’s in October 2017, Kremer Collection paintings can be viewed from all angles, including from behind, and even in x-ray mode, which provides a look at original drawings and other markings not seen on the surface of the canvas.

The works can be experienced from anywhere in the world, as long as there’s a VR headset to be found. The experience was no easy feat to build, though. The 74 paintings on view were each photographed anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 times to build an ultra high-resolution visual model of each painting.

Kremer doesn’t just showcase the works themselves, it offers a digital replica of a physical museum space. The “digital architecture” of the museum was designed and constructed by architect Johan van Lierop to allow visitors to move down hallways, explore galleries, and enjoy expansive ceilings and architecture, much like visiting a real museum structure today.

Tate Modern

Exhibition: Modigliani (November 2017–April 2018)

Tate Modern has long been home to innovation in art, especially those driven by technology. Artist Amedeo Modigliani was the first artist to be showcased by VR in this way at the London museum. The availability of archival materials and new research allowed VIVE Arts to revive Modigliani’s artist studio as it stood 100 years before for a brand new VR experience in 2017.

This particular example underscores the unique ability of the technology to recreate a lost past. There are no photographs of the studio in its original state, so developers relied upon the remains of the studio as it stands today, first-hand accounts of the space, historical documentation, and technical analysis as inspiration for designing the studio’s digital replica. A team at PRELOADED, a gaming studio, worked with art historians to verify the historical accuracy of each item featured in Modigliani’s studio.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA)

Image Credit: frog design

Exhibition: René Magritte: The Fifth Season (May–October 2018)

Given that Surrealists rely on the juxtaposition of imagery in unexpected ways, it seems that works from the movement are primed for VR. The 2018 exhibition René Magritte: The Fifth Season at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art utilized the expertise of frog design to manipulate the surrealist environments Magritte envisioned.

This “Interpretive Gallery” allowed museum visitors to experience Magritte’s paradoxical works firsthand. For example, digital windows were set up with the artist’s pieces and served as “mirrors” for patrons. However, the reflections were anything but accurate. Some caused reflections to not behave as you’d expect and incorporate viewers into the paintings themselves, or even reflect patrons across the gallery to another window display.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Image Credit: MoMAR

Exhibition: MoMAR (June–September 2018)

While many museums have begun embracing the smartphone, some artists are using this to their advantage and utilizing AR as a manipulative tool. MoMAR dubbed itself as an “unauthorized gallery concept” and was developed by a group of artists who digitally co-opted a 2018 Jackson Pollock exhibition on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Known as MoMAR, the app allowed museum patrons to hold their smartphones in front of certain Pollock works featured in the exhibition, where users would see a manipulated or enhanced image of the work on view.

The MoMAR project raised many questions—posed by its artists, patrons, and the art community—about the relationship of gallery spaces and technology today. Despite the fact that many museums now encourage the use of smartphones usage in galleries, it’s typically been in the vein of enhancing a gallery experience, not hijacking it.

MCA Chicago

Exhibition: I Was Raised on the Internet: Transdimensional Serpent (June–October 2018)

VR, though a creation of a new reality, is often paired with a user’s own reality in order to further enhance the experience at hand. Transdimensional Serpent, part of the I Was Raised on the Internet exhibition at MCA Chicago, offered somewhat of an extended reality, meaning that visitors were part of the art both digitally and physically. While sitting upon a large sculpture of a serpent eating its own tail, visitors donned Oculus Rift VR headsets to be transported into a world of fantasy. A rendition of the snake itself exists in a world of other magical creatures, including avatar adaptations of the patrons themselves.

Musée de l’Orangerie

Exhibition: Claude Monet: The Water Lily Obsession (November 2018–March 2019)

While visiting Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France, is the ideal destination for lovers of Impressionism, the Musée de l’Orangerie offered a digital journey through his studio and a look at his paintings with Claude Monet: The Water Lily Obsession. Home to some of his most famous water lily paintings, the museum introduced a VR experience in November 2018 that immersed visitors into Monet’s world. The experience offered a virtual studio tour, a deep-dive into individual paintings, and revealed Monet’s sources of inspiration.

The HTC Vive headset, the inaugural VR experience at the Musée de l’Orangerie, provided the technology to facilitate this transformative program. VR here didn’t just allow for the paintings to be viewed up close, it allowed them to become the worlds for others as Monet viewed them. Participants were immersed in recreations of his studio, home, and the gardens made famous by his works.

National Museum of Finland

Image Credit: VRFocus

Exhibition: The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II (2018–present)

History and art are often one and the same. Art has long been a vessel for representing history, and today, VR offers a continuation of that vessel in order to take a deeper historical dive. While some VR experiences allow audiences to experience works of art that are either lost or inaccessible, the National Museum of Finland provided something completely different with its VR adaptation of R. W. Ekman’s painting The Opening of the Diet 1863 by Alexander II. The technology allowed users to go inside the painting, visit its various locations, and even facilitate imaginary conversations with its subjects.

This virtual reproduction of the painting allowed visitors a closer look at the historical impact of the piece’s subject matter. Beyond that, the technological impact here is significant: not only was a two-dimensional painting converted to VR for closer analysis, but it was figuratively lifted from the canvas and recreated into a three-dimensional setting. Transforming static imagery into living art is one of the many progressive attributes of VR.

Virtual and augmented reality, when leveraged by museums, offer a new way of seeing, experiencing, and interpreting works of art. Technology has become an increasingly significant tool for museums to leverage. Today, VR and AR provide enhanced experiences in art interpretation, which further enhances the museum experience and enables a deeper understanding of art by audiences who attend in person or through digital technology.

Sources: ProVR | The New York Times | Mashable | Wired | Reality Technologies