Bringing Virtual Space out into the Open
By Jay Friess
A few years ago, marketing director Susan Wilkinson got curious about using augmented reality (AR) technology to enhance the visitor experience at Historic St. Mary’s City. She and her information technology department investigated the feasibility of giving visitors a piece of equipment or an application for their smartphone that would allow them to put a virtual layer of information over the recreated buildings and other attractions at the living history museum.
“The really cool thing is that you don’t need an interpreter,” Ms. Wilkinson said of some of the self-guided augmented reality tours she’d seen at other museums, which allow visitors to point their smartphones at exhibits and see the image “augmented” with content from the Internet. Some technologies would have been able to display buildings and other objects that do not exist today where they would have stood hundreds of years ago. “You can actually kind of time travel. …It’s very cool.”
But the museum never got past the brainstorming phase once they saw the price tag.
“What we found is it’s prohibitively expensive,” Ms. Wilkinson said, noting the expense of the hardware and the time needed to develop content for the system.
Dr. Julie King, chair of museum studies and professor of anthropology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, has been following the development of AR in museums around the country, and she acknowledged the cost associated with developing such a project.
“A lot of museums don’t have the funds. It’s not cheap,” Dr. King said. However, as the technology matures and younger generations come to expect information to be delivered in novel ways, she asked, “Can we afford not to do it?”
“I’m very interested in how museums can use digital means to further our aims,” Dr. King said. “With a physical place, you can only draw a certain [geographic] radius.”
Dr. King pointed to the Spy Week and Electronic Field Trip projects at Colonial Williamsburg that have incorporated mobile and Internet technologies to expand the museum’s reach to young families and other distant geographic audiences.
And open source software communities may bring technologies like AR and virtual worlds within the reach of small museums. This summer, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Augmented Environments Lab released the latest version of Argon, a free virtual reality browser for the iPhone based on the open source KHARMA Internet standard being developed there.
Meanwhile, local contractor Tech Wizards has been employing OpenSim, an open-source virtual world standard, to produce training modules for the Navy. And the Naval Air Warfare Center’s Future Workforce Technologies and Strategies office recently showed off a virtual space that recreates locations at Naval Air Station Patuxent River using a similar technology. The Navy hopes to use open-source virtual world software to reduce its training and travel expenses.
The Navy is very interested in funding advances in open-source software, as evidenced in its development of the Future Airborne Capability Environment and stated desire for a unified control system for unmanned aircraft.
Dr. King believes that the Navy will likely lead the way in virtual space adoption, saying, “They’ll set the pace, and, hopefully, our imitation will be the sincerest form of flattery.”