This article is inspired by the exciting virtual reality experiences Onix-Systems developed for the museums of Banská Štiavnica and Anija Mõis and the growing demand for VR in museums and other cultural institutions worldwide.
The development of applications like the aforementioned Onix’s projects may cost around $10,000-$30,000. If you are interested in creating one for your museum or gallery or in utilizing VR as an art medium, here you can learn:
- the primary use cases for virtual reality in museums and other cultural institutions, with examples
- the benefits of these applications for the organizations, visitors, and artists
- what you may expect and what you need to consider if you decide to leverage them.
"Virtual reality opens the doors of museums and galleries to boundless exploration, offering visitors immersive experiences that transcend the confines of physical space. We bring history, art, and culture to life through carefully crafted VR applications, enriching the visitor's journey and fostering deeper connections with the exhibits.
At Onix-Systems, we believe in the transformative power of VR to revolutionize museum experiences, making them more accessible, engaging, and unforgettable for audiences worldwide.”
- Roman Piskun, Onix’s Unity Department project manager
Please contact us if you have questions or want to estimate your VR project cost.
Table of contents
VR experiences can be interactive or take the form of 360-degree videos. Cultural institutes use them in different ways for the benefit of museum-goers, fine art aficionados, students, school children, curators, and artists. Here are some examples.
Traditionally, art appreciation has been exclusive and often expensive. It requires some planning and organizational effort and often involves travel. The same can be said about visiting a major natural history or science museum.
Afterward, museum-goers would often encounter long queues, crowded rooms, and unsympathetic guides. Too often, they may have just a few seconds per exhibit and even fail to see what they’d anticipated most. Besides these difficulties for the public, this model actually contradicts the museums’ aim to disseminate knowledge and art to as many people as possible.
Virtual reality can both alleviate these problems and take the museums’ mission to a new level. The medium is praised for its ability to recreate spaces, remote destinations, or places that no longer exist, and to transport viewers there just by strapping on a VR headset.
Virtual museum tours make galleries and collections accessible virtually to all with unprecedented ease, especially when the digital content is available online across multiple VR platforms. This way, even people with mobility issues can access the world’s best collections without leaving home.
Immersive VR experiences dramatically enhance the museums’ storytelling potential. VR can make exhibits interactive, put objects in context, show their true scale, and bring an extra dimension to museum exhibitions and collections. It changes the viewer’s perspective and builds a genuine connection with them.
Best VR museum tours can provide the experience of self-guided exploration or a private viewing, standing in front of an exhibit as long as one pleases, without rope barriers and glass walls. Access to art and knowledge becomes both immediate and more affordable regardless of the viewer’s background and location.
Example of a location created by Onix-Systems for the spatial.io platform
Publicity and promotion
Developing original and fresh virtual reality experiences, museums, galleries, and cultural events demonstrate their desire to innovate and reach a broader public. They can also grow their visitor numbers.
There’s still considerable media interest and excitement about VR, so a new interactive multimedia museum experience may attract even people who usually are not interested in art or history. Those who have visited a gallery or museum in VR will likely want to see the exhibits in real life too.
Artists are always in search of new means for artistic expression, expanding their audiences, and connecting with them. VR offers it all.
Multisensory virtual experiences provide a new way both to convey feelings and information and to absorb them. VR can transform the ephemeral qualities of light and atmosphere into art and create lasting records of temporary experiences.
With VR, artists can design truly engrossing original, and fantastic environments and simulations. Moreover, VR’s neural and muscular interface allows viewers to become active participants rather than mere consumers.
Example of Onix’s work for InnerVR, a VR-based meditation application
Remote VR Museum Experiences
In the 19th century, people used stereoscopes for viewing three-dimensional depictions of wars, historical figures, or magnificent world’s fairs. In the Timescope project for Somasoft, Onix has helped to bring this experience into a VR environment. Using images from the Library of Congress, we helped bring history to life.
Many museums use VR technologies to create virtual tours and programs that share their collections worldwide. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC created a set of online tours of the museum building, select areas at the satellite support and research stations, and even exhibits no longer on display.
Within most of the tours, virtual visitors can navigate room-by-room via an on-screen map or interactive arrows on the floor. The rooms’ panoramas were stitched together from many still photographs so that visitors can enjoy a close-up view of an exhibit.
The virtual tours are suitable for any VR headset type, provided they use a Web VR-enabled browser. The experience is also accessible on desktop computers and mobile devices.
Museum-goers have long dreamt of the ability to pick up items and examine them closely. In 2017, the British Museum in London partnered with the VR content developer Boulevard to make that dream come true. They created “Two Million Years of History And Humanity,” an Oculus Touch application that allowed users to view and compare 48 artifacts from the museum’s collection.
The app was free to download for users around the world. Using Oculus Rift with Touch controllers, they could reach out, lift, rotate, and study unique exhibits including the Gilgamesh Tablet and a two-million-year-old stone-chopping tool.
It’s possible to develop virtual experiences around particular artworks, too. Eye of the Owl – The Hieronymus Bosch VR experience by Pieter van Huystee is dedicated to “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Not everyone may have a chance to fly to Madrid and spend hours in one of the Prado’s rooms to fully appreciate the painting’s countless figures and scenarios.
The free VR game, however, allows you to explore it at leisure in otherwise impossible detail. The picture was digitized in ultra-high resolution so that you can both see the texture of the paint and view the figures in life-size. The multimedia experience includes a narration from the latest art history research, image-related sound effects, and animations.
Virtual reality technology not only enables people to experience a certain exhibit or tour virtually but also makes it possible to create an entirely new museum online. The Kremer Museum, launched in late 2017, is an iconic example. The trick is that this collection of Flemish and Dutch Golden Age paintings doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar building. “
Our journey as collectors has always been about finding the highest quality artworks and simultaneously finding ways to share them with as many people as possible,” the founder George Kremer said. A virtual reality museum seems like a perfect solution.
The museum space, though virtual, was designed by a world-class architect and ensures perfect lighting that art lovers and collectors appreciate so much. Each of the 74 paintings was photographed 2,500-3,500 times using the ‘photogrammetry’ technique to build ultra-high resolution visual models.
Virtual visitors can see the colors and brushwork up close, look at the back of the paintings, and explore their provenance.
Screenshot of the Unreal Space VR app developed by Onix
Location-based Museum Virtual Reality Experiences
Museums leverage virtual reality on-premises to help visitors better understand their collections. VR exhibits can enhance, complement, or simply promote physical exhibitions.
For example, in 2020, Onix-System built a virtual tour for a museum at Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia. The completely preserved medieval town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historical VR project blends scanned museum exhibits with digital panoramas to give visitors the feeling of walking in the town centuries ago or witnessing the flooding of an ancient mine after an explosion.
In 2023, Onix’s VR team created a quest VR game to enrich the permanent exhibition at Anija Mõis, one of Estonia’s most beautiful country houses. The museum visitors can rent a VR headset and plunge into the game since we ensured it’s accessible for kids and adults alike.
The visitors play various mini-games, each set in one of the manor’s rooms, trying to score as many points as possible while learning the estate’s history. 360° photo panoramas accurately recreate the rooms to ensure a player’s complete immersion in the museum’s slightly haunted atmosphere while they are trying to solve the mystery of the lady of the manor.
VR promotes scientific knowledge by combining emotion with discovery. The National Museum of Natural History in Paris opened its first permanent VR exhibition in 2018, dedicating to virtual reality a room on the 3rd floor of the Gallery of Evolution.
Five VR stations were equipped with the newest VR systems to support contemplative, interactive, seated, standing, or moving immersive experiences. Five participants can have the sessions simultaneously, viewing various life forms up close and to scale and explore the links between them. Their companions can see on a video screen what they are seeing.
The Museum offers a coherent experience, from the staff’s greetings in the waiting area and to the exit door. To facilitate a total immersion, the comfortable, warm Cabinet of Virtual Reality is soundproofed and features a glittering mosaic ceiling.
A tactile mat on the floor limits and marks out the optimal experience area. Dynamic lighting accompanies visitors in their journey from the real world to virtual reality and back.
Museum virtual reality can take you to worlds you can’t possibly visit or even imagine. Jurassic Flight at the Cincinnati Museum Center is an example. The dinosaur hall at the Museum of Natural History & Science has two V2 Birdly machines that provide a truly immersive full-body experience: flying with dinosaurs as one of them.
“Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass,” a part of the Louvre’s landmark Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in 2019-2020, was a collaboration with Vive Arts. The museum’s first-ever VR project was primarily intended to solve a long-time problem associated with the iconic picture. “Mona Lisa” is pretty small, tucked behind bulletproof glass, and permanently sieged by tourists craving for a selfie with it.
The VR experience must have enabled many visitors to access the masterpiece up close in a transformative way. They could explore details invisible to the naked eye, see what could surround the artist and the model, learn about his techniques, her identity, and the history of the painting, and even fly across the surreal landscape aboard Leonardo’s visionary flying machine.
Virtual Reality Art
Artists have been experimenting with VR and creating pioneering new works. Technology is evolving to support them. For example, the already mentioned Vive Arts is a multimillion-dollar initiative aiming to transform the way we create and engage with art. Since its launch in November 2017, it has been instrumental in the development of many artists’ and cultural institutes’ works.
VR is known for simulating out-of-body experiences, but Sir Anish Kapoor made his first VR project a visceral odyssey. The journey starts in a hurricane-blown forest, proceeds through the human body, creating the disorientating sensation of falling into yourself, and ends in a realm resembling outer space. “Into Yourself, Fall” is thus a radical introspection that the viewer is experiencing physically.
This is an example of cinematic VR that is produced by playing linear material. By contrast, VR games are fully interactive, especially with the addition of physical interfaces that enable the viewer to interact with virtual objects.
In May 2019, the 58th Venice Biennale featured “Rising,” a climate-change-focused work. Marina Abramović, the artist, explained: “I was really interested in the idea of video games and how children are playing the games that are based on aggression, violence, and fear. I was thinking about how I could reach a young audience.”
She also assumed that empathy evoked in the virtual world could drive people to real-world action.
“Rising” featured the artist’s virtual avatar standing in a glass tank that water slowly fills. As the viewer approached, she would disappear, and the viewer finds themselves in the middle of the Arctic Sea, where polar ice caps are melting and splashing into the water.
Back in the room with the glass tank, they could make a difference by pledging to support the environment. If they didn’t, they would watch Abramović drowning.
It was overwhelming even via a dedicated AR mobile app. With VR, when the brain believes what the viewer sees, and standing on a moving platform, the viewers would become panicky – exactly as potential victims of environmental catastrophes should feel.
Read also: Augmented reality (AR) app development cost
The artists’ ongoing experiments with VR technology and growing public interest meet at a new type of gallery – VR art galleries. For example, the ArtScience Museum in Singapore equipped a dedicated space with VR headsets and controllers for world-famous artists, scientists, museums, and film festivals to present their VR artworks.
The market for VR art projects is emerging as well. For example, in 2017, Chinese artist Yu Hong and the Khora Contemporary production company collaborated on a work titled “She’s Already Gone.”
The artist hand-painted every detail within each episode of the virtual character’s life from birth to death, with the history of China going backward in the background. According to Beijing-based gallery Long March Space, a Chinese private collector bought one of the eight editions for $100,000.
Besides the benefits, museums and galleries should be aware of the possible challenges of implementing VR technology.
An organization that decides to offer a VR museum experience is likely to incur several types of costs:
- expenses associated with video shooting, VR app programming, etc.
- the cost of hardware for location-based VR experiences
- expenses associated with allocating and equipping a space dedicated to VR experiences
- labor costs: hiring and training extra personnel, salaries, and benefits
- space and equipment maintenance, sanitization, etc.
Developing a high-quality VR experience can be time-consuming and expensive. The cost depends on the technical requirements, the amount of immersive content required, and possible deadlines. For instance, the virtual recreation of the Banská Štiavnica museum took 1,000 hours.
Please contact Onix if you have any questions or wish to get a quote for your project.
The same is valid for hardware. The type of experience you want to provide will determine the type (and price) of the required equipment. A popular VR headset plus a pair of controllers will support a basic cinematic or interactive virtual museum experience.
However, if you envision a truly immersive full-body multisensory simulation, you may need to purchase or order a whole system to be manufactured, e.g., a custom chair allowing 360-degree turns. The price of such equipment would be multiplied by the number of visitors you wish to serve simultaneously.
The VR experience may require several staff members to facilitate it: manage queues and crowds, provide information and instructions, put headsets on visitors, sanitize them after every use, charge batteries, etc. Occasionally, even sensitivity training may be necessary.
Visitor experience nuances
First-time users will likely experience a learning curve, so museum employees must provide support and instructions. They should be there to turn on a headset or launch an application and solve any issues visitors may encounter due to errors or technology limitations.
For on-premises VR experiences, cultural institutions must allocate sufficient spaces where visitors may experience virtual reality without being watched by other visitors. The space must be free of obstacles or hazards for visitors wearing VR headsets or provide safe boundaries in the physical world for them during VR simulations.
Some visitors may feel uncomfortable during VR simulations or after simply donning a VR headset. VR experiences sometimes cause unpleasant symptoms, like dizziness, eyestrain, or headache.
Museums and galleries must develop restrictions, instructions, and warnings for visitors to consider before using VR experiences. For example, some VR experiences may not be suitable for children, pregnant women, people with psychosis, PTSD, a history of seizures, or other medical conditions.
Museums should also mark age-restricted and graphic content and warn visitors about imagery related to the Holocaust, violence, disasters, diseases, and other topics that can prompt an extreme or adverse emotional response.
The adoption of VR technology in museum settings raises questions about curatorial choices. It may be challenging to strike a balance between virtual and physical experiences. For example, remote VR museum experiences must be realistic and impressive enough to promote a museum or gallery but not to the extent of replacing a tour of the physical premises.
On the premises, the technology must enhance the narrative and support educational objectives but not distract the visitors. Employees may need clarification about their role in the changing museum environments or worry about losing their jobs to ‘virtual guides.’
Many exciting virtual reality exhibitions, tours, and artworks have demonstrated both the medium’s capacity and growing popularity in the field.
It’s possible to create a VR experience for museums, galleries, and other cultural institutes that will be effective both within and outside their walls. So can be an augmented reality museum experience.
If you have ideas for utilizing VR and AR for cultural, educational, entertainment, or any other purposes, please feel free to share them with Onix. We can make your dreams a reality – virtual or augmented.
How can museums ensure the successful integration of VR experiences?
Here are several recommendations for organizations that wish to utilize virtual reality museum exhibits, gallery tours, or other VR experiences:
- Understand the financial burden the cultural institution is taking on before implementing VR museum experiences. You will have to plan and allocate the budget, including the cost of VR app development, VR headsets and additional equipment acquisition, maintenance, labor costs, etc.
- Align technology with the institution’s mission and strategy. Isolated VR implementations (e.g., focused on a single artifact or short-term exhibition) may create buzz but fail to pay off. A VR app should cohesively complement the institution’s narrative and enhance the visitor experience.
- Consider and acknowledge the limitations of VR. The applications described above may not be suitable for your particular museum context. You need to assess whether VR can fulfill your specific needs and achieve goals most effectively.
- Make the VR experience visitor-centered, accessible, and engaging, and adapt it to visitors’ specific needs.
- Train the employees to present VR experiences to visitors, help them put on and adjust the VR headsets and other gear, ask for feedback after the experience, maintain the equipment, etc.
What are the ways to use augmented reality for museums’ and galleries’ purposes?
- An AR app can provide additional information about exhibits. When visitors point their smartphone at a brochure, plaque, QR code, or even an artifact or painting, they will view overlaid text, images, or video on the screen.
- A museum or gallery can incorporate AR overlay information into their website to attract visitors and immerse them in exhibits before they visit the premises.
- More sophisticated AR experiences can “bring to life” the exhibited artifacts, skeletons, and machinery or recreate entire ancient sites around a visitor.
- Museums can use AR technology to develop full guided tours or educational games, e.g., in treasure hunts or quiz formats, to make a museum tour more interactive, informative, engaging, amusing, and memorable.
- Different AR experiences enable cultural institutions to tailor the same tours, exhibits, and events to the needs of visitors of different ages and educational levels.
- Augmented reality also enables artists to go beyond the limits of 2D and 3D objects. They can use AR to make their artwork “come out” of a canvas, bring a sculpture to life, or immerse the viewer into a unique artistic experience.
How much does museum virtual reality cost?
The cost depends on the technical requirements for the VR experience, the type and amount of content, whether custom equipment is required, possible deadlines, and other factors. For instance, Onix’s Banská Štiavnica museum project took 1,000 hours and cost $30,000. The VR game for Anija Manor took 250 hours to make and cost $10,000.
Can Onix develop a VR or AR application for a museum or gallery?
Yes. Onix’s team possesses the programming expertise, artistic skills, and experience necessary to create cinematic and gaming experiences for Android, iOS, and many headsets or turn original video content into exceptional VR experiences.