NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM L.A.
Wanting a way to showcase their wet collections the Natural History Museum in LA embarked on a challenging journey to create a totally immerserive exhibit.
The Blu Exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles was really a test or case study to support the notion "Could the museum provide a Virtual Reality experience?" Being a relatively new technology at the time of the exhibition it was going to present cost difficulties and logistical nightmares, however along with the challenges it presented, it was also a great opportunity to throw caution to the wind and apply a VR attraction to enhance the museum experience.
They knew that people were aware of VR, but were unsure how they would engage with it in a gallery environment or if they even wanted it.
They had the goal of including some choice examples from their wet collections, which they previously had not been able to expose all that often, so it was clear that would generate some interest in those collections and expand and drive the audience to the museum.
The initial step for the project was finding the right partner and content that would fit with their wet collections. A senior staff member found a piece that was viewed at Sundance and that really spoke to her. 'The Blu' was a series of 3 short experiences that they stitched together specifically for the exhibition audience. The content is an experience that explores the wonder and majesty of the ocean through a series of habitats and allows users to come face to face with some of the most awe-inspiring species on the planet. It was a great marriage to their marine collections and had some built-in buzz from its Sundance film festival appearance.
The team had done a little preliminary evaluation beforehand and found that the majority of their visitors had never tried VR before and was a totally new experience for them, which meant there would be a learning curve for new customers. Aside from quite a large number of staff required to assist patrons, they also developed a slideshow presented on tablets to educate people on the equipment, what to expect and how to use. This proved necessary as it was important to have a relatively quick turnaround of users in an experience.
In order to display their marine exhibition, they created an immersive waiting lounge that helped create an atmosphere prior to people entering the VR experience. It was an opportunity for people to acclimate themselves to the right mood and lighting before putting on a headset. It allowed staff an added opportunity to assist and educate patrons about the VR.
Using high power PCs and the HTC Vive, they set up 5 booths with motion sensors to track movement in the experience. This proved to be a significant challenge for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a limited reach, having only 5 rooms each doing a 6-minute experience it meant there would be a significant wait time. Fortunately, this was the opportunity to show off their accompanying marine collection, so if VR was the driver it allowed engagement with their educational pieces of the exhibition. Another challenge was the computing power required to run such an intensive VR experience. As with any computer, there is always a risk of things going wrong, it was safe to say the IT team were very busy during the whole process. Cleverly though, they had anticipated this and had a spare pod that would allow for overflow when necessary but more importantly would provide relief when technical difficulties would hamstring a room for a small period of time.
One interesting outcome was the reception from an older demographic and first time VR users. Initially, the thought was it would be popular with the young generations familiar with the technology, however, the use of VR in "perceived" safe place such as a museum was a big plus. The trust the museum has developed with their customers was enough to encourage people to come and try their first VR experience. This, combined with it being FOC with entry was a great incentive to the inexperience VR user.
They noticed significant repeat patronage with people who had experienced the VR and were impressed with the referral rate of users. Many customers came back to bring other people in their social circles to experience the exhibition.
One of the main reasons for the success of the exhibition, especially when compared to other museums who have used VR, was the construction of the immersive lounge. VR became an enhancement to a physical immersive space that the team had put together. It was the blending of a traditional exhibition with a digital VR experience. It proved that the meshing of both the physical and virtual can have a significant emotional impact.
It is fantastic to see how VR can be executed on this level and elevate a traditional product offering. The technology was able to not only be a drawcard into the marine collections at the museum but was also able to mesh with a purposely built immersive space in the lounge area. A great example of how the technology can be more than a marketing tool and enhance an existing product by offering an experience that you wouldn't be able to do, short of taking visitors to the bottom of the ocean.
While headaches were had and challenges were faced, they were all overcome and on reflection delivered some fantastic outcomes. The experience was a massive learning curve and has helped them identify how they will be able to use VR moving forward for other exhibitions. They identified that dealing with the partnership of utilising someone else's content hamstrung them a little by not being able to dictate the VR message. They would like to create their own content which would enable them to deliver a more purposeful, educational experience.
For smaller operators, it is clear to see that VR can be a huge drawcard especially while the technology has the novelty of being new. However, its real strength lies in the opportunities it presents to offer something you have never been able to before. Sometimes safety, time, costs or logistics can disable efforts to enhance experiences and product offerings, but with VR you can take people behind the curtain and show them experiences they would never be able to be a part of.