Augmented Reality for Museums

The previous post was an introduction to Augmented Reality explaining the basic terminology and the techniques while this one is focusing on applications of this technology that have been hosted or are still running in cultural institutions all over the world. To my surprise I found about 10 projects, the majority of which were either experimental or for seasonal exhibitions, while there are also some exceptional cases of projects which are still hosted in museums. The projects are sorted by time beginnning with the oldest one.

♦ Click on the title to visit the project’s page or publication ♦

2003 – Virtual Dig

When I found this project I was actually amazed, because it clearly got the success factor for me: Not only it used state of the art technologies, like multi-touch tables and augmented reality, but it also made the best out of them, with a proper scenario and interaction design. For the complete journey visit the project’s site and click on the thumbnails to watch the videos.

The Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory recently completed a year-long collaboration to create a virtual archeological dig. The Virtual Dig ran from May 10, 2001, to August 12, 2001 as part of the Sichuan China artifact exhibit. During that time more than 25,000 people experienced this novel interactive experience.

The Virtual Dig combined HI-SPACE and ARToolKit interaction technologies along with 10 networked computers, 6 cameras, and 6 projectors. This page focuses on the interactions supported by the technologies. Each interaction is labeled as HI-SPACE or ARToolKit to identify which technology supported the specific interaction.

As a project it was more of a game, to increase attraction to cultural heritage institutions, offering a deeply engaging experience. Thus, it did not provide any additional material or information about the artefacts exhibited or about their context.

2004 – Building Virtual and Augmented Reality Museum Exhibitions

This project was web-based and its core was an online Virtual Museum, reconstructing the space of a famous museum, i.e. a corridor of Victoria and Albert museum of London, which exhibited archaeological artefacts. The Augmented Reality part was in the interaction between the user and the exhibits. If the user wanted to examine an artefact like he was holding it, he was pointing a marker to a camera input device and he could then see in the virtual museum, his hand holding the marker with the artefact superimposed, as shown below:

A system that allows museums to build and manage Virtual and Augmented Reality exhibitions based on 3D models of artifacts is presented. Dynamic content creation based on pre-designed visualization templates allows content designers to create virtual exhibitions very efficiently. Virtual Reality exhibitions can be presented both inside museums, e.g. on touch-screen displays installed inside galleries and, at the same time, on the Internet. Additionally, the presentation based on Augmented Reality technologies allows museum visitors to interact with the content in an intuitive and exciting manner.

Very interesting concept and implementation to offer a museum visit online using three-dimensional graphics allowing the viewers to interact with the exhibits, however I do not think I would use this project more than once. For me most of those  projects which show a virtual world, instead of making me feel thrilled like I was in there, they rather make me think “How much do I want to be there!!” feeling that what I experience using them, is a rather bad copy.

2005 – The Virtual Showcase

This project was running from 2002 to 2009 in the Deutsche Museum in Bonn, Germany. It uses optical-see through display to augment virtual objects in the real world, while with a large ring all around the users are able to rotate the object as it would happen with a real showcase. It is an exceptional AR project as it is both educational and viable as it has been used for years on a permanent exhibition.

We describe the Interactive Virtual Showcase, which was developed for the interactive presentation of mixed reality scenarios in museums. We suggest a rugged design and an intuitive interaction metaphor, which is based on a tangible interface. The system was installed at a museum and is running for more than one year without major problems. The reaction of the numerous museum visitors has been very positive, which is partially due to the fact that the technology is mostly hidden from the users.

That is the kind of projects I admire, those which are not only exceptional both in conceptual and in practical level, but are also implemented in a way that they will be viable and sustainable to serve a museum in the long-term.

2007 – Mixed Reality Museum for Antikythera Mechanism

This is another project which surprised me but for different reasons. I am not aware if it was ever hosted in the museum it is made for, but it is very interesting both the number as well as the quality of the applications which constitute this project. Throughout his website Kolsouzoglou’s research and experimentation around Augmented Reality and Augmented Virtuality can be found. A summarising essay is available here here.

Well, I did not spend a long time on that rather experimental project since all the concepts implemented there had occurred to me before so I was just stunned by the amount of work and effort using special equipment and cutting-edge technologies.

2008 – An Augmented Reality Museum Guide

This one is a professional project done by the Louvre – DNP Museum Lab for Louvre and was actually running on a seasonal exhibition there on Islamic art. The technology used is a commercial product of Metaio named Unifeye SDK. The Tour Guide hosted information for the artefacts and also directions helping users to find their way in the exhibition. In addition to the actual AR Tour Guide, the Lab ran a survey and evaluation on the project’s efficiency.

Recent years have seen advances in many enabling Augmented Reality technologies. Furthermore, much research has been carried out on how Augmented Reality can be used to enhance existing applications. This paper describes our experiences with an AR-museum guide that combines some of the latest technologies. Amongst other technologies, markerless tracking, hybrid tracking, and an Ultra-Mobile-PC were used. Like existing audio guides, the AR-guide can be used by any museum visitor, during a six-month exhibition on Islamic art. We provide a detailed description of the museum’s motivation for using AR, of our experiences in developing the system, and the initial results of user surveys. Taking this information into account, we can derive possible system improvements.

A polished Augmented Reality application which shows the future of this technology in cultural institutions. The evaluation and the findings accompanying the project are also of much use. For me, however, the fact that it lasted for a seasonal exhibition only proves a possible weakness regarding sustainability. A last point, is that the project’s cost is rather high both hardware-wise (Ultra-Mobile PCs) and software-wise (Metaio license).

2008 – Bridging the Gap between the Digital and the Physical: Design and Evaluation of a Mobile Augmented Reality Guide for the Museum Visit

In the same sense with the previous project is the AR Guide for the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes, France. Includes an Ultra-Mobile PC while for the paintings’ recognition ARToolkitPlus has been used. It also used a framework called MAGIC standing for Mobile Augmented Reality for Indoor Collections, which unfortunately cannot be found online. The concept here is that they did use marker-based tracking, but as markers they used the paintings themselves, avoiding any intervention to the actual exhibition.

Can Augmented Reality (AR) techniques inform the design and implementation of a mobile multimedia guide for the museum setting? Drawing from our experience both on previous mobile museum guides projects and in AR technology, we present a fully functional prototype of an AR-enabled mobile multimedia museum guide, designed and implemented for the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes, France. We report on the life cycle of the prototype and the methodology employed for the AR approach as well as on the selected mixed method evaluation process; finally, the first results emerging from quantitative evaluation are discussed, supported by evidence and findings from the qualitative part of the assessment process. We conclude with lessons learned during the full circle of conception, implementation, testing and assessment of the guide.

The interface is a bit appalling for me but anyway that is rather subjective. I like the innovation of using the painting as a marker itself, although the users had to stand far enough, so that the whole painting is in the camera’s view and can be recognised. Regarding the evaluation, indeed it is very important but if you have to dress your users like troops as shown below well, I think this fact on its own affects their behaviour.

2009 – Supporting the Creation of Hybrid Museum Experiences

That is another project which used marker-based tracking for Augmented Reality applications. It was an attempt to create a tool which allows museums’ experts to develop AR experiences. The first concept implemented involves a user holding a camera-equipped mobile device and a marker next to each artwork. When the camera captures the marker the mobile device displays content relevant to the particular artwork and plays an audio narration. In addition, if the user had chosen a special audio trail, she was then given a marker and when her marker was placed next to the marker of an exhibit, a custom audio narration was triggered regarding the artefact based on the user’s preferences.

The second concept implemented involved an artwork of Kurt Schwitters and an installation constituted by a table a projector and a camera. When the users put markers on the table, these objects would appear literally on the painting as a part of the collage.

This paper presents the evolution of a tool to support the rapid prototyping of hybrid museum experiences by domain professionals. The developed tool uses visual markers to associate digital resources with physical artefacts. We present the iterative development of the tool through a user centred design process and demonstrate its use by domain experts to realise two distinct hybrid exhibits. The process of design and refinement of the tool highlights the need to adopt an experience oriented approach allowing authors to think in terms of the physical and digital “things” that comprise a hybrid experience rather than in terms of the underlying technical components.

This is a systematic approach for making the AR technology more accessible to museum experts constituted by an iterative process of three phases. I really like the fact that from the very early stage of design until the very end of production and testing, the researchers worked closely with museums experts to evaluate the viability and sustainability of the product.


This is only a subset of the Augmented Reality projects that had taken place in (or were designed for) cultural institutions all over the world and that is because the particular technology encounters almost a decade of its existence. However, it has been just a couple of years since Augmented Reality became a trend mostly because the tools which enabling this technology have become much more accessible than they were let us say four years ago, due to the phenomenal commercial success of smartphones.

3 thoughts on “Augmented Reality for Museums

  1. LOL Thanks for sharing Arnold! Have no clue what that means.. that they don’t have any markers at that area? or if they do, visitors are not allowed to use them? Anyway I set it as my wallpaper, it’s ridiculous! =)

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