Lookie what I found bundled in with my Sunday newspaper:
It’s a free Google Cardboard device from the New York Times. I promptly downloaded the app and started watching the 3-D, immersive short films they have already released: a profile of three children living in refugee camp; a short documentary on the making of artist JR’s “Walking New York” installation; and two sponsored content films—a fiction adventure from Mini and an animated look at bio-mimetic industrial design from GE. (If you don’t have a VR headset, you can view 2D versions on your computer monitor.) The NYT says it is “committed to VR storytelling” and promises to deliver more content soon.
This is a brilliant move to extend the reach and impact of an industry (investigative journalism) struggling to win new audiences and find stable financial models. And I think it is an important example for museums looking for a new way to deliver content, cultivate member relationships and deepen engagement.
I’ve pointed out in the past how museums could harness 3D printers in a similar way: create a member benefit that provides the opportunity to buy a printer at cost (or below cost) to members and follow up with a members-only “3D scan of the month.” (This also opens up opportunities for co-creation: members could vote on their favorite museum object to join the 3D queue; the museum could hold scanning and printing classes to help people create scans to add to the roster of 3D offerings.) The hitch here is that 3D printers are still pretty pricey (from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on quality, speed, reliability) and have a steep learning curve for use. Also—the printer is pretty much only good for one thing.
There are work arounds to the costs (encourage people to use printers increasingly available at local copy shops, send scans to online firms for production, hold maker workshops where people can use the museums’ own printers). But still, the adoption barrier is pretty high, even though the costs to the museum to produce and distribute the scans can be pretty low. Some very good tools that can be used to create 3D scans are free or low cost, and many use the camera on a smart phone or tablet. (For more sophisticated scans, the supporting tech can be a lot pricier of course.)
Cardboard flips the economics of pushing out engaging, multisensory digital content. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own smartphones, and the NYT VR app is free. That figure is probably even higher among NYT subscribers, and museum members. Even if you aren’t a NYT subscriber, you can buy Google Cardboard from a number of vendors (Google open sourced the specs) for under $10. That makes for a really low barrier to consumption. On the other hand, producing the content is expensive, and many museums will need to look for partners (financial, technical) just as the NYT did to pull this off.
Consider the potential pay back. An article in Wired yesterday called virtual reality an “empathy engine” and having watched the films, I agree they grip the heart (and in some vertiginous moments, the stomach) in ways the print stories do not.
Here’s some museum-based VR experiences I would value:
- Sneak peeks of exhibits about to open (which would also encourage me to come see the real thing!)
- Behind-the-scenes looks at the cool happenings most people never get to see: uncrating a new acquisition; conserving a painting; rigging and moving a big specimen or sculpture; an on-site look at field work (archaeology, dino digs, biological exploration)
- “Sitting in” on a prototyping session to see how exhibit elements are designed and tested
I think it would even be a great medium for an annual report from the director—looking her in the eye (and snooping around her office), while I get the inside skinny on what’s up at the museum in the coming year.
The big take away is this: museums should keep an eye on emerging technology—Google Cardboard, 3D printing, and soon sophisticated augmented reality equipment like Hololens and Magic Leap—and figure out how to use these devices to insert themselves more deeply into people’s lives. Let big companies spend the big bucks developing, testing, marketing and deploying the underlying technology—our opportunity is to use them for compelling storytelling, and as ways of expanding our reach beyond the museum’s walls.