Smart Glasses in Museums

Written BY

Emily Friedman

December 5, 2015

Industry: Education / Museums / Leisure; Company: de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA, and other cultural institutions; Device: Google Glass (AR & VR headsets)

What do you get when you pair smart glass technology with the world’s greatest art and cultural artifacts? A revolutionary redesign of the museum-going experience.

While multimedia exhibits have long been mainstays of science, history and children’s museums, fine art museums have traditionally avoided digital tools in an effort to preserve the art viewing experience. For a while now, however, one has been able to rent designated devices (and more recently smartphones and tablets) as audio guides in museums; iPads and other touch screens have been employed to supplement exhibitions; most major museums boast a proprietary app for visitors to download to their smart devices; and QR codes beneath artwork labels have been featured to provide information on key works. Now, art museums are looking to interactive Augmented and Virtual Reality exhibits to enhance the visitor experience, hopefully without degrading the artworks/artifacts themselves in the move towards embracing new forms of technology.

Indeed, both major museums and smaller cultural institutions are experimenting with smart glasses and other augmented reality devices to serve as virtual tour guides, make exhibits more engaging, attract a younger crowd, and more. So what’s the “museum of the future” like?

Last year, San Francisco’s de Young Museum become one of the first museums to integrate Google Glass into the art viewing experience. As part of its Keith Haring exhibit, which ran from November 8, 2014 through February 16, 2015; de Young visitors were able to borrow a pair of Google Glass to use as a virtual docent.

The technology enabled exhibit-goers to experience visual cues and audio narratives that brought the American street artist’s work to life in ways simply not possible via traditional museum wall text or even a wall-mounted iPad display in each room of the show. For every painting and drawing featured in the exhibit, a Glass-clad visitor could slide his finger along the side of the device to bring up special content, including educational text, supplementary images, and testimonials/audio interpretations by those close to the artist as well as de Young chief curator Julian Cox.

It is always the goal of a major exhibition or retrospective of an artist’s oeuvre to make that artist’s works come alive and tell his or her story. Typically an institution will possess archival materials for major artworks—In the case of Keith Haring, such materials would include those of an audiovisual nature, such as video or audio of Haring speaking about his work. In addition, there might exist letters to or from the artist and contemporaneous artifacts such as news clippings that give a sense of the period of time in which the artist worked. Wall text can only go so far in conveying all this contextual information; and oftentimes an artist’s work is left to speak for itself. Wearable technology – specifically, AR glasses – opens up the possibility of arming the average museumgoer with all kinds of information, helping him to gain a deeper understanding of what appears before him on the gallery wall.

To realize the Google Glass tour for its Keith Haring show – actually the first-ever Glass-powered art exhibit – the de Young museum partnered with Google and French app maker GuidiGO.

There’s great potential for wearable technology in the leisure industry, as museums around the world increasingly open themselves up to virtual visits by anyone, anywhere on a variety of digital and mobile platforms. The introduction of smartphone- and iPad- friendly exhibits marked a first step in making the museum experience a bit more like going to a website; the next step: tricking out the brick-and-mortar institution with the latest in wearable tech to enrich the viewing experience and amplify the educational value of individual exhibits à la the de Young museum.

Aside from the de Young, a number of institutions have incorporated augmented reality and even virtual reality in order to educate and enthrall; and while the technology is not always used in combination with smart glasses, the use cases are there. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History uses AR in its “Skin & Bones” app to give flesh to extinct animals; Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum uses AR to bring historical artifacts to life; and the Van Gogh Museum in Antwerp – to digitally reconstruct paintings.

During a recent children’s event at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors were able to try out VR headsets while viewing Jackson Pollock’s 1950 painting Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). The technology made it appear as though the black and white paint splatters were jumping off the canvas, floating in air before viewers’ eyes in an amazing illusion. Likewise, visitors to London’s Natural History Museum were able to check out VR first-hand in the film “First Life.” Donning VR headsets inside the museum’s 65-seat theater, visitors experienced 360-degree views of prehistoric sea life—colorful ocean creatures that were a far cry from the dusty fossils upon which the educational VR movie was based.

We’re certainly entering a rich period of experimentation in exhibit design, and the de Young Museum case is just a taste. It may be the wearable AR combination that has the greatest potential for revolutionizing the museum experience. In the ability to overlay material onto real-world objects, curators gain more subject matter to work with in shaping the message of their shows; while visitors gain a new degree of control over their exhibit experience in the ability to choose which information to access with their smart glasses as they stroll through the gallery.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before museumgoers will be able to rent AR glasses instead of the traditional hand-held audio guide. Rather than follow a human docent around an exhibit, straining to hear him or her speak; visitors will be able to go on smart glass-powered tours, with famous paintings becoming “deconstructed” before their eyes as audio information about the nature of the individual brushstrokes or the relationship between foreground and background plays in their ears.

Welcome to the future of culture…

Further Reading