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Immersive (XR) storytelling


min read

How are museums and cultural institutions using virtual and augmented reality to bring history to life?

Published on

December 16, 2022

There is a growing trend amongst the world’s leading museums and cultural institutions to explore how immersive (XR) technology supports the presentation of exhibitions and stories in new ways. Virtual (VR), augmented (AR) and mixed reality (MR) tools have become increasingly popular ways for curators to create interactive, engaging and educational experiences that can make visitors feel like they are stepping into the story, rather than viewing it from the outside.

Maitree’s Arts and Cultural Producer, Luvenia Kalia, has seen the uptake in her own work:

“Immersive technology has undeniably penetrated cultural heritage industries due to its ability to allow visitors to recontextualize or approach cultural heritage either from a cognitive or sensitive, emotional point of view, moving away from text-based and linear ways of presenting heritage understanding.” 

For those new to immersive technology, there are some key differences between the main XR tools:

Virtual Reality (VR) is a completely artificial environment experienced by visitors in a virtual reality headset. 

Augmented Reality (AR) is where digital content is overlaid onto the real world and experienced by visitors via their mobile phone or tablet camera.

Mixed Reality (MR) is where digital content is spatially embedded and merged into a real world environment. It can be experienced with a mixed reality headset.

Visual depiction of the differences between VR, AR and MR.
Image from
Interaction Design Foundation

“There are a range of ways these digital tools are being used to distribute cultural heritage understandings,” Luvenia continues. “ We have to bear in mind these new technologies are not there to replace the physical but to complement or offer another mode of intervention with the subject. The technology can add another layer to the physical, cater to different learning abilities, as well as provide some excitement to the topic for younger visitors.”

Current innovative uses and real world examples of XR storytelling in museum projects and cultural institutions include: 

Using Augmented Reality (AR) to bring heritage trails to life

Whether it’s discovering an archaeological site or walking through an historical town, mobile based heritage tours are one of the best ways for audiences to engage in local histories. With the integration of augmented reality, visitors can access further layers of the story beyond just audio - from augmented ‘time portals’ where archive photos are displayed at key sites for visitors to peer into the past, to exciting artifact hunts where people can search for 3D treasures hidden across the historical site. 

Maitree’s AR interpretation plinths used in the Brown’s Mart Welcome Tour demonstrate one way to use augmented reality at a smaller historical site where physical signage opportunities are limited.

The UK’s Storytrails Project is another exciting example of this technology making use of the time portal concept.

Image from Story Trails Website

Using Virtual Reality (VR) to feel present and interact with the past

When we read a history book or watch a documentary, we view history from a third person perspective. VR technology allows us to fully immerse in a recreated version of the past where we can play a character in the story, walk along the streets of an historic town or seek refuge in the midst of a war zone. Interacting with a story in this way allows visitors to remember stories as memories and not just a piece of information that is distant from them. 

The American Museum of Natural History makes good use of archival content and 360 videos to create supporting content for their exhibitions.

Images from Fossil Hunting in the Gobi,
American Museum of Natural History Youtube

Project Dastaan and their award winning VR experience Child of Empire exploring the stories of people impacted by the partition of India in 1947 is one of the best examples of this type of interactive VR storytelling.

   Image from Child of Empire


Digital archiving, gamification and photogrammetry

3D scanning of heritage sites and artefacts is no doubt the work of future looking museums and cultural producers. A great example is the Anglo Sikh Virtual Museum and their beautifully captured 3D Sikh artefacts which were created using high end photogrammetry - the process of taking photos and volumetric data at once  - and now sits in an online museum space for all to explore. 

The next layer of engagement for audiences in this space is creating simple and imaginative games where visitors can interact with the 3D artefacts. Whether it's an augmented reality treasure collection like BBC Civilisations app, a digital treasure hunt around the streets of a heritage site - or an online puzzle to “piece’’ the artefacts back together again. If you haven't already, we recommend checking out the popular VR game  “Puzzling Places’’ encouraging users to piece together life size scans of historic sites around the world. 

Interactive and immersive digital experiences to complement museum exhibitions

People visiting museums need multiple access points to take in a story. Some people prefer more visual content, others auditory, verbal or even kinaesthetic. Individuals who may struggle with pages of exhaustive text may require some interactivity in consuming information. Immersive technology allows for the visitor to be part of the story engaging and interacting with the content for better consumption. 

Curious Alice is an immersive VR experience created by the V&A, Preloaded and HTC Vive Arts. It’s an excellent example of how interactive content complements traditional exhibitions. 

Images from Curious Alice. Original artworks by Kristjana S Williams, 2020.

Written by

Luvenia Kalia

Peta Khan

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