Young visitors to museums and cultural attractions love interactive exhibits. They have been around for a while, but in recent years augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have kicked the engagement level up several notches and enlivened attractions as never before.

VR is a totally immersive experience where users don headware (think Oculus Rift headset) to enter a simulated three-dimensional environment to interact with a totally new world — a virtual world. AR blends the virtual world and the real world by adding digital images or data to objects in the real world (think face filters on Snapchat, Pokémon Go or backgrounds on Instagram). AR is easily accessible with smartphone apps.

With AR and VR, the visitor experience has entered a whole new realm compared to the usual touchscreen interactive experience of the past.

National Comedy Center

Credit: National Comedy Center

The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, opened only 19 months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced its temporary closing. The center has since reopened and is chock-full of innovative exhibits that provide engagement never before experienced in a cultural attraction.

Among its more than 50 exhibits, the center uses facial recognition technology, green screen technology and a hologram (AR) to immerse visitors in the world of comedy.

“In the Hologram Theater we start with a dive into live stand-up comedy,” said Gary Hahn, vice president, marketing and communications.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan appears as a hologram to talk about his career.

Clips of Jim, also in hologram form, show him performing at earlier times in his life when his performance is “a little bit shakier than we’re used to with someone of Jim’s talent,” Hahn said. “We see early Jim Gaffigan performing comedy while he is still learning the craft. Then we see a much more polished stand-up comedian who has been in his craft for some time.

“The idea is to show the arc of how a stand-up has perfected his craft,” Hahn said.

Why use a hologram to do that?

“We are a museum that really wanted to focus on state-of-the-art technology throughout the museum, and we saw the hologram as an opportunity to bring a more realistic sense of what it’s like to sit in a comedy club,” Hahn said. “Many visitors, especially those on the younger side, have never been to a comedy club. The hologram helps us feel like we’re in an actual club watching a comedian come on stage.”

Credit: National Comedy Center

Technology is evident from the moment students enter the museum and create a “LaughBand,” a bracelet containing an RFID chip to hold their comedy preferences. “Visitors use it to go through the museum to scan various exhibits,” Hahn said. “It brings up comedy in video form — stand-up comedy, TV comedy, film comedy — based on what you told us you like. So you get a very personalized experience as you walk through the museum.”

“LaughBattle” uses Microsoft artificial intelligence facial recognition technology to tell if a participant cracks a smile in the game where two players try to make each other laugh as they read jokes from a screen. “Your job is to not laugh,” Hahn said. “If you laugh, you lose a point.”

An exhibit called “Act the Part” uses a green screen to put visitors in classic comedy scenes such as Lucy and Ethyl working in a chocolate factory or Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?”

The center is observing additional precautions during the pandemic, and each visitor is issued a disposable stylus to avoid touching screens.

ArtLens Gallery, Cleveland Museum of Art

Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Museum of Art has been using AR for the last several years with one goal — to bring people into art.

The museum was one of the world’s first to take advantage of AR in a comprehensive approach throughout the entire collection, said Jane Alexander, the museum’s chief digital information officer.

In designing ArtLens Gallery which opened in 2012, planners knew they wanted to incorporate innovation, digital and art to attract visitors and give them a toolset to “dive deeper into the museum’s world-class collection,” she said.

The museum is “more than AR,” Alexander said. “We’re mixed media, we’re AI, we’re multiple uses of innovation. We don’t use technology to distract. It’s really to attract people into the artwork.”

ArtLens Exhibition houses a rotating collection of masterworks with interactives that “use gesture-sensing, eye-tracking, and facial recognition technology to give visitors tools to understand concepts such as symbolism, composition, purpose, gesture and emotion,” she said.

Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

ArtLens Wall, a 40-foot interactive, multi-touch wall, allows visitors to see and learn about every object on view, updating every 15 minutes with the latest information on each object. Students can connect their phones to the wall via Bluetooth and the ArtLens App, save artwork to their phone, then head into the galleries to explore in person.

Technology helps the museum carry out its mission.

“We’re constantly using innovation not because it’s cool or the new thing,” Alexander said. “We select a technology because it will bring a better result to our audiences. AR has been great because it really does … engage people and get them into the collection.

“That’s our goal — to remove barriers and just bring people into the art.”

The museum has taken a number of coronavirus precautions, including timed visits, temperature checks for visitors and a mask requirement. “We removed the touch screens a long time ago with most of our activities so we’re ahead of the game on that,” Alexander said.

VR Transporter, St. Louis Science Center

At the St. Louis Science Center, visitors can experience VR in ways similar to those run by high-end gaming PCs — on a much grander scale.

The VR Transporter, “an immersive motion ride simulator,” combines technology similar to those home games, said Neville Crenshaw, manager of special exhibitions and featured experiences. “It has a custom motion base powered by electric motors that use scripted movements to enhance the feeling of immersion in the selected ride.”

Credit: Courtesy of Pulseworks, LLC

Guests, seat-belted in the VR Transport, don VR headsets for their “trip.” The Transporter moves but does not “travel,” Crenshaw said. “The platform itself can move up and down, pitch forward and back, lean left or right, and any combination of these to mimic the feeling of true motion.”

Visitors can choose to participate in a spacewalk outside the International Space Station or see humanity take their first steps on the moon, he said. “You can journey under the ocean and encounter ancient marine life or participate in a VR game over the skyline of a futuristic Chicago.”

Visitors really enjoy the VR Transporter, Crenshaw said. “Not only can you select content that is meaningful to you, but this is truly a ride that you can’t do anywhere else.” To keep visitors safe during the coronavirus pandemic, each ride is limited to only one group. “We ensure that guests queuing for the experience are given the space to distance themselves properly,” Crenshaw said. Visitors are required to wear face masks while on the ride. Headsets, seat belts, seats, handrails and other touchpoints are sanitized between rides.

Article by Kathie Sutin

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Published once a year, Youth Travel Planner magazine presents ideas for educators and tour planners to develop educational travel for middle and secondary/high school students.