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The future of XR in cultural heritage

Did digital solutions save the cultural sector during the Covid-19 pandemic? In this article, we explore the role XR might play in its future.
A high-angle photo of robot
© University of York; Claire Boardman

In a recent article, Museum Next’s Tim Deakin asks:

“Would it be a stretch to state that digital solutions have saved the arts and culture sector during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

Although experienced users of on-site ‘edutainment’ technologies, used to support and enhance visitor experiences, GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), have historically been slower adopters of emerging technologies.

However, the necessary but unplanned and prolonged COVID-19 social distancing requirements have, at least for larger institutions, radically and permanently changed this situation. Many already had or were able to put online 360o virtual tours of their collections, like that of the Museo de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, relatively quickly.

Embracing digital engagement enabled these institutions to both maintain and build existing relationships with local visitors and, to the surprise of many, develop new and significant online global audiences. This has resulted in digital strategies, often previously being an addition, a ‘bolt on’ to the broader business plan, becoming fully integrated and central to future success as online programming becomes an organisational staple and digital creativity sector is rising to meet this demand and that of other sectors.

XR Stories, a Yorkshire and Humber sector development initiative based at the University of York, notes that, as the largest virtual and augmented reality sector in Europe, one which is expected to grow 62% over the next decade ensuring that the UK has a head-start in terms of access to the $160 billion worldwide immersive technologies market.

The previous section looked at examples of Virtual and Augmented reality currently implemented with the Cultural Heritage sector. These technologies are part of a group of technologies referred to as Extended Reality, or XR for short and are often visualised as a Reality – Virtuality spectrum:

An image showing a spectrum of reality to virtuality

Described as “AR on steroids” and sitting in the middle of the spectrum, between VR and AR, Mixed Reality (MR) blends together virtual and real worlds. Employing hologram technology, spatially aware and responsive 3D digital content, is projected into the real world and can be manipulated as though it were a physical object; a ball can bounce off of tables, walls or disappear under a couch. Currently, MR remains significantly more complex to create and implement than AR and even VR and existing examples within the Cultural Heritage sector are rare. However, as with all technology, this situation is rapidly changing through collaborations between the cultural institutions and global technology companies as demonstrated by the ‘La Belle’ exploration ship installation in which a reconstruction of the ship is projected on top of actual hull remains and the based and projected onto the 300 year old wooden model of Mont-Saint Michel.

Interestingly, as XR technologies advance, and become more accessible to and symbolic of large, modern cultural institutions they are also being used, with equal impact, as tools of protest against those same institutions. In New York, a group of digital artists created the “Hello, we’re from the internet” AR App. This scrambled or replaced Jackson Pollock’s paintings in the Museum of Modern Art with their own work in order to highlight what they saw as elitism and exclusion in the art world.

But what is the future of XR is the Cultural Heritage sector? Continued technological advancements are making XR a more realistic option for more institutions, while concerns that the technology could be alienating and isolating for visitors, particularly older visitors have proven unfounded overall. Indeed, collaborating with research and development teams has demonstrated that GLAMs can provide an ideal environment for the public to experiment with and learn emergent technologies and there are several projects experimenting with the combination of XR and AI (artificial intelligence).

However, as technology advances so does the need for greater ethical scrutiny and institutions must resolve issues such as ensuring that multiple voices, from the present and past, are heard equally or the reuse of historic personal information, belongings and human remains in ways those people never envisaged and can no longer give consent for. These should be approached not as technology but as design challenges requiring advancements in design theory and practice in line with, if not ahead of, the technology.

Over to you

Do you see yourself being part of this future and if so, what aspects interest you the most and why? What do you think are the present and future ethical implications of using XR or MR?

Share your comments in the usual way please!

© University of York; Claire Boardman
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