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by Karolina Wylężek, Irene Viola and Pablo Cesar (CWI)

Museums’ objects, often having outlived their owners, continue telling the story of the past and educate us about the history. Sadly, they also do not last forever. Passing time gradually makes them more and more fragile, finally rendering them too vulnerable to be shown on a display ever again. Luckily, new technologies come with solutions to keep relics of history accessible even after their physical “lifetime” ends. At CWI [L1], we decided to develop a social VR system that would allow us to experience and interact with objects long after their time has passed.

Reasons for digitalisation of museums and their exhibits are countless, from providing better accessibility for disabled people and individuals in distant locations, through improving the attractiveness of the exhibitions and allowing for information personalisation, to maintaining the image of objects after they are too old and delicate to be displayed. For some exhibits, like fashion artefacts, there is also another dimension to be considered – the role they play in people’s lives. Clothes – objects being kept closest to our bodies, make us feel a natural desire to interact with them [1]. That is where, together with curators from Centraal Museum in Utrecht [L2], European Fashion Heritage Association [L3] and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (NISV) [L4], we came up with the idea of creating the exhibition inside a virtual environment – it would allow broader access to museums and the relics of history, and stretch the interaction boundaries that exist in physical museums.

The question that came then was how to do it right. According to the literature, for most visitors, the social aspect is the most important part of the museum visit [2]. People need to have a companion with whom they can share their opinions and search for validation of their reactions. It is also an occasion to strengthen the bonds with family members, friends or a partner. Taking into account how important the social factor for museum visitors is, we decided that the exhibition should be created within a social VR environment. Social VR would allow people to visit a museum together, even while being in distinct locations, and interact with each other almost as they would in the physical world.

After deciding on the technology, there were still many questions to be addressed, like how to present the exhibits in an interesting way, how to make the experience attractive, taking into account differences between visitors and their areas of interest, or how to present information to be engaging. To answer those questions and discuss other potential challenges, we organised a focus group with museum curators, most of whom are members of 5Dculture [L5] – a project that the virtual exhibition is part of. The focus group helped us define five essential concepts: context, emotion (manifested by the concepts of control, connection, familiarity and enjoyment), learning, user experience, and vulnerability. Interestingly, they all connect with each other, creating a coherent whole. Improved learning outcomes appear as a result of a well-designed experience and introduction of familiarity. Context plays its role in achieving educational goals as well. Going further, the connection between exhibits or performances, which were defined as part of user experience, can be a tool in building the context. On the other hand, context is a very important element in achieving immersion, which strongly influences the experience. Finally, vulnerability was concluded to be an important topic of the exhibition, being able to evoke emotions and giving opportunities to build a context.

Figure 1: First prototype of the system including some of the selected for the exhibition garments
Figure 1: First prototype of the system including some of the selected for the exhibition garments.

Following the findings of the focus group, the design process of the system has begun. Pieces too vulnerable to be displayed in a traditional way were selected by curators of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht [L2] and 3D-scanned. They will be placed in the system, where visitors will be able to see and interact with them (for example by rotating them) (Figure 1). To enable free interaction between the visitors, we decided to use VR2Gather – a system providing real-time 3D image capturing developed by our team [3]. It allows users to “teleport” into VR – thanks to point cloud technology, the visitors look in the virtual environment exactly the same as in the physical world. As the users’ whole bodies are reflected in the digital space, they can not only talk but also use nonverbal communication means, like gestures or body posture. This is expected to also have a positive influence on immersion and presence – aspects very important for a good user experience. An important decision to be made is how to approach context. Since it appears to have a big impact on many aspects of the system, we decided to test three different variants of the exhibition, each building a different context around the exhibits by adjusting how the museum space and users’ clothing look:
Variant 1: Museum space neutral, users wearing their original clothes.
Variant 2: Museum space styled as an elegant museum, users wearing their original clothes.
Variant 3: Museum space styled as 19th-century interior (times of the exhibits), users wearing 19th-century clothes.

In the last scenario, body-tracking will be used to make users appear as if they are wearing historical garments. The prototype including these three variants of context will be tested, and based on the results we will continue the project with the one having the best influence on the user experience. During the first round of testing, we also aim to find ways of improving interactions and the way the story [L6] of the exhibits is presented.

The final version of the exhibition will be presented in June 2024 in NISV [L4]. The museum visitors will take part in the experience together with their companions, and we will be able to collect the data to assess the systems’ influence on visitors’ museum experience and learning outcomes.


[1] A. lmer, “Untouchable: creating desire and knowledge in museum costume and textile exhibitions,” Fashion Theory, 12:31–63, 2008.
[2] S. Debenedetti, “Investigating the role of companions in the art museum experience,” Int. Journal of Arts Management, pp. 52–63, 2003.
[3] I. Viola, et al., “VR2Gather: a collaborative, social Virtual Reality system for adaptive, multiparty real-time communication,” in IEEE MultiMedia, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 48–59, 2023.

Please contact: 
Karolina Wylężek, CWI, the Netherlands
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Next issue: July 2024
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