VR Will Break Museums

The first sign came with the Oculus Rift DK2 last year, when I discovered that consumer virtual reality could finally replicate a sense of physical presence in a digital world.

The second came last month, when I visited the British Museum’s Sicily exhibition.

The exhibition was perfectly fine, a well-curated narrative of the Greek and Norman periods of Sicilian history — the greatest hits, if you will. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t see shit.

It was a Sunday afternoon, only four days after it opened, so of course it was busy. I queued to read labels. I queued to study maps. I queued to peer over shoulders to gawp at shiny jewellery. And even after all that queuing, I only got to see each object for a few seconds — lingering any longer just made me feel guilty.

Perhaps, I wondered, there was a problem with the layout of the exhibition? Maybe they’d placed too many objects in corners, too many long cases against walls? But that wasn’t it. The designers did the best they could, given the constraints. And on reflection, I realised that I’d spent just as much time in other popular exhibitions queuing to see stuff.

Let’s be clear, overcrowding is a problem borne of success: 6.8 million visitors per year of success, to be exact. But it’s a problem nonetheless.

So to answer the inevitable question, “Why would you want to look at ancient objects in virtual reality when you could see them in real life for free?” I say, “Because even in the best museums in the world, I can’t see shit.” Compared to that very imperfect reality, virtual reality is an improvement.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

Since 2010, I’ve visited museums over 250 times. My first book was inspired by museums. I’ve consulted for the British Museum about games, and I’ve taught workshops there. I’ve even had work displayed at the Design Museum, MOMA, and the V&A.

So I say this from a place of love: VR will break museums.

Before I take that fence down, I’m going to explain what it is that museums do that’s so difficult and important.

Museum galleries and exhibitions add context to objects. They tell you what an object was used for, where it was found, who made it, how they made it, and much more besides. They accomplish this through labels, timelines, photos, drawings, models, and ‘interactives’ — but also through more subtle means, like the arrangement of objects in a continuum or a group.

Making the Modern World at the Science Museum

If you do this with the right objects, you can tell the story of a civilisation in a single room. Remove the context and you’re in a warehouse. Remove the objects, and you might as well just read a book or watch TV. The objects are a physical link with our past. They enforce discipline in our explanations, and they sow magic in our imaginations.

Unfortunately, many museum galleries do a poor job of providing context. Yes, budget constraints, time pressures, duelling priorities, etc., but when I encounter something like this:

Swords at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (but really, it could be anywhere)

what I see is a very pretty arrangement of contextless weapons. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but it doesn’t belong in a museum. Sure, there are labels — but they’re usually placed out of the way and arranged in a cryptic order that doesn’t correspond with the physical arrangement of the objects. The museum might as well just fire the curator, take a trip down to the stores, pick some cool-looking weapons, and then print out their names and dates.

There are many other kinds of objects and stories that museums have a hard time explaining, like musical instruments. It’s all too common for museums to render them silent, reducing them to mere pretty objects. Some will offer phones to listen to a sample, and the excellent Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels offers visitors wireless headphones that automatically play music when you stand in front of an instrument — but these are notable exceptions.

The failure to add context to objects is not a trifle to be hand waved away — it should be the entire point of a museum’s galleries and exhibitions!

You don’t need VR to solve this problem. For a weapons exhibit, I’d be happy with an illustration or animation or ‘interactive’ that compared them by accuracy, range, reload time, stopping power, cost, popularity, etc. I’m sure that donning a VR headset of dubious hygiene and spending three minutes pretending to fire rifles would be plenty of fun, but it’s not the only solution.

What VR does, however, is make it easier to add context in general. VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context (lots of people enjoy watching videos and movies in VR, you know) plus it adds entirely new contexts, like simulations and recreations. Of course, this only works if the entire museum is experienced in VR; you can’t be putting on and taking off a headset every five minutes as you wander through galleries.

So if you really believe that putting weapons in a glass case is the very best display arrangement, you can still do that, except in VR you can add labels that appear next to the weapons instead of metres away (you wouldn’t believe how much of headache this is for curators). And if you’d rather teleport people into a 1:1 recreation of Chichen Itza, you can do that as well.

Anything you can do in a museum — which doesn’t include touching or smelling—VR can do better. Continue reading “VR Will Break Museums”

Artificial Intelligence: Another Inspection

Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.

I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.

In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:

Roger Ebert: Great Movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review (published 2011). See his original review for comparison.

Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.

Robbie Collin at The Telegraph: AI revisited: a misunderstood classic (published 2014)

When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?

“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.

In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.

Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club: Contrary to popular opinion, Spielberg found the perfect ending for A.I.

Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.

It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.

Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)

And finally, Steven Spielberg in conversation with Joe Leydon:

In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”

Snap Judgment: The Novel of Podcasts

Snap Judgment is the novel of podcasts for me – each episode is hard to get into, and each story can be intimidatingly unpredictable, as personal tales inevitably are. But overall, the podcast is surprisingly rewarding and consistent. That’s a real achievement compared to more highly-produced podcasts that are like crystals, almost too perfect and artificial in their construction – as Radiolab and Gimlet Media can be, for example.

So consider this a short note of appreciation for Snap Judgment. It’s not my favorite podcast but it does good.