Museum practitioners are energized, perturbed, or both by the prospect of a future in which people spend more and more of their time immersed in virtual worlds. After all, the virtual is the enemy of the real, right? Some counter that a society where people spend more of their work and leisure time in virtual worlds will cause a backlash of people valuing museums more than ever, as engaging physical environments and purveyors of access to the “real thing.”
The relatively few museums that are dabbling in immersive, 3-D virtual worlds often use them to supplement their existing physical space, either to provide access to people who can’t visit, or different kinds of experiences, or access to information not available at the museum itself. The Tech Museum of Innovation uses its Second Life space—the Tech Virtual Museum Workshop to encourage innovative exhibit design that may then translate into physical exhibits. (Of course, they are the museum you would hope is pioneering virtual space.) A few, like the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum, exist only on-line.
Museums often lag behind the technological bandwagon, though. You’ve heard of early adopters? Museums tend to be the opposite, riding the lag end of the curve. A decade ago this was a problem for many small museums struggling to establish web sites with limited expertise and technological resources. (Though this gap is shrinking: a 2004 study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that 88 percent of museums had a Web site as of five years ago—doubtless the figures are even better now.) To the extent that virtual worlds prove useful (maybe even necessary) to museums, it is disturbing to think that we might again lag behind the tech curve, and possibly create a cadre of technological haves and have-nots within the museum field.
So, I am particularly happy to report on an initiative that may help reduce the risk of such technological disparities. The Virtual Immersive Technologies and Arts for Learning Laboratory (VITAL Lab) at Ohio University is working on a project they call iVirtualWorld. This is a kind of automated Virtual Museum Builder—a turnkey program to help museums generate 3-D, navigable virtual museums populated with digital assets (images of collections objects, audio, movie files, even 3-D digital models.) Such an application would simplify the creation of a virtual site the way that PowerPoint simplified the creation of digital slide presentations, or a site like Blogger, WordPress or Livejournal simplified creation of a blog. Offering a choice of various virtual formats, such as Second Life, Unity3D or OpenSim, it will enable a user to chose the size, style and configuration of their virtual museum, upload content and automatically generate their museum. iVirtualWorld is a university research project and the intent is to make the final product available free to users.
Chang Liu, VITAL Lab director, is looking for a museum partner to work with the VITAL Lab, testing out iVirtualWorld’s museum-building capabilities. The prospective partner would provide engaging subject matter and content, digital assets (existing or planned) and narratives. And Chang notes, most importantly, imagination! No financial contribution from the museum is expected. If your institution is interested in signing on as a partner to test iVirtualWorld’s museum-generation tools, contact Chang Liu at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I would like to hear from you–if you did build a virtual museum, what would be your goal? Would it mimic your existing institution, or would it be a platform to try things that are physically or financially impossibile in the real world?