AR in museums

Part I

Connected to the blog entry about Virtual Reality in museums, we also want to look at the topic from a different perspective. As Augmented Reality is on the other side of the reality continuum (Milgram), we focus today on the other end of the spectrum. AR “[…] describes the concept of augmenting a view of the real world with 2D images or 3D objects […].” (Woods et al. 2004). We are happy that Larissa Neuburger is giving us some insight into the world of AR and its application in museums. She dedicated her master thesis to this topic and is therefore an expert in that field. This first entry should help to understand the background and context of AR in museums. The second one will describe an experiment how to enhance the experience of visitors of a museum with the technology of AR.

Reality-Virtuality Continuum (Milgram, 1994)

Reality-Virtuality Continuum (Milgram, 1994)


As already said, museums represent important institutions, “[…] have become a growth industry and have emerged as one of the most important leisure-time venues in the developed and, increasingly, the developing world.” However, museums are facing various challenges to still justify their existence towards their investors and the public as well as finding their position in the dual reality of tangible objects, digital technologies and social media (Falk & Dierking, 2013). Consumers and especially tourists are not satisfied with ordinary products or services anymore, but expect experiences that create emotions and everlasting memories. Therefore, also museums have to adapt to these developments and try to create special experiences for their visitors.

It is important to use digital technology in museums as a meaningful value added service but not at the expense of the core competence of a museum to preserve human cultural heritage. With the usage of digital technologies as a tool to provide information to the visitors, the autonomy of the visitors can also be boosted as they can explore the museum on their own without any dependency on a guided tour. Due to its interactivity, visitors also often see benefits for their children and teenagers as they can engage themselves with scientific content in a playful but meaningful way.

The status quo of technology used in museums is the audio guide that is an inherent part in most museums. Audio guides – in their different styles and formats – are widely known and mostly accepted by all museum visitors and can also lead to visitor satisfaction, which has been proven by multiple studies. Furthermore, audio guides can also be considered as a preliminary stage of multimedia guides and mobile applications (Schäfer, 2007).

AR in Museums

Museums often cannot show their whole collections to the visitors due to limited space and resources or due to the fragility and high value of different objects (Wojciechowski et al., 2004). In the museum “[…] AR tools offer users the possibility to deploy their phones as pocket-sized screens through which surrounding spaces become the stage for endless extra layers of information.” (Schavemaker, 2011)

With advancements and developments over the recent years, AR can be seen as a flexible and practicable tool with high visual quality to overcome these problems and support the quality of the museum content. For museum purposes, AR is at the beginning of its usage but can be seen as a well-accepted technology among the scientific community and the public (Woods et al., 2004; Noh et al., 2009). AR applications in museums allow the visitors to interact with the content of the museum exhibition intuitively. Therefore, museums are starting to present their collections in a more exciting and appealing way to their visitors, by supplementing real objects with virtual additional information (Wojciechowski et al., 2004; De Angeli & O’Neill 2015; Dalsgaard & Halskov, 2011).

AR on mobile devices is easy to use for the visitors, as they have already been accustomed to holding up the camera of the mobile device to take pictures. Therefore, scanning an AR object with the device is a very natural gesture and can lead to an organic museum experience (Sherman, 2011). AR mobile applications for museums also work with automated image recognition to realize the scanning of real world objects in contrast to a manual tracking systems such as QR codes. A survey by Wein (2013) shows that museum visitors show a clear preference for automated visual recognition. Therefore, the user is again not distracted from his natural interaction with the museum objects. Moreover, the natural distance between the visitor and the displayed object can also be kept, whereas numbers and QR codes have to be scanned directly at the object itself. Another advantage of AR applications is that also museums with limited financial resources can make use of such systems. No expensive hardware systems have to be acquired and many AR software providers offer solutions than can be implemented and applied by museum professionals without any IT expertise (Wojciechowski et al., 2004).

When designing a mobile AR application for a museum, the development of the offered content needs to always refer to the complexity of the real physical object. Therefore, it is important to find the balance between the object, the content and the context (Dalsgaard and Halskov, 2011). With AR the whole museum can become an interactive exhibition and can replace the paper guide books and leaflets for information and orientation in a museum (Schmalstieg & Wagner, 2005).

The technology of AR can also be a challenge for museums and the communication with their visitors. Visitors who have no former experience with AR, mobile devices or ICTs in general, need help and assistance when using an AR application. An additional personal support person can be useful near the augmented objects and to support the visitors in the case of problems or difficulties (Woods et al., 2004). In general, the visitors should be able to use the application intuitively and easily, as everything that is not understood by the visitors can also not be accepted by them.

In order to become a highly accepted and popular application form in museums, AR and especially mobile AR applications still have to overcome technical issues like the lack of accuracy in the GPS systems. Also, the high process power of these applications and therefore the quick draining of the battery power of mobile phones are still an issue, which will be overcome with new mobile devices utilizing better batteries. Also, the availability of a WIFI connection, possible roaming costs and the speed of a mobile Internet connection has to be considered. Many museums still do not provide a free WIFI connection or the Internet connection might not work, due to architectural features of historic buildings (Dutra & Ebel, 2014). Although there are plans to abolish roaming costs within the European Union in the year 2017 (European Commission 2015), the availability of WIFI hot spots will still be an issue for non-European tourists and visitors.

In museums, AR applications are often applied on mobile devices, which have the advantage of being personal to the visitor, portable and mostly available, as most visitors possess a mobile device of their own. On the other hand, mobile devices can disturb the experience of visitors and limit interactions (social and physical) with other visitors or the displayed artefacts. Therefore, wearable devices such as headphones or glasses can be used for the AR tour throughout the museum. In that way, the visitors can experience the exhibitions hand free and can exploit all the augmented objects automatically in front of their eyes. By having the smartphone in front of their faces, visitors can also be guided by the AR application through the museum (De Angeli & O’Neill, 2015).

Margriet Schavemaker (Head of Collection & Research Department, Stedelijk Museum) recapitulates the experience with their developed AR application “ARtours”. She states AR as being the “ultimate app” for their museum. AR can offer interesting interrelation between virtual heritage and real space, it offers a new platform for experimentation on an artistic level, it involves communication, interpretation and contextualisation of the visitors and thus, AR is a perfect medium for innovation and collaboration in a museum context (Schavemaker 2011). Additionally, AR offers museum visitors a new way to handle artefacts and museum objects as an object liberator and can enhance the real reality with virtual content – combining the best of the two different worlds. “AR is another way for museums to break from the constraints of their walls […], bringing their collections and interpretative expertise to new and larger audiences.” (Center for the Future of Museums, 2012)

AR application in the Stedelijk Museum: "ARtours"

AR application in the Stedelijk Museum: “ARtours”

With the right usage of AR, museums can increase the number of visitors and also attract new visitors by creating curiosity about an innovation used in a museum. Therefore, some visitors will only come and visit the museum because of AR. This segment represents potential visitors of the future, if only the museum can fulfil their needs and satisfy their expectations (Cianciarulo 2015, p.142).

Stay updated for the 2nd part of Larissa’s AR in museums contribution. In the following article she will tell us more about her own experiment which she conducted in the Dommuseum Salzburg.

Larissa Neuburger about AR in museums

Larissa Neuburger about AR in museums

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