Digitizing Entire Museums

Not too long ago, I wrote about how we will eventually begin digitizing whole experiences, and that these virtual experiences will increasingly compete with their real counterparts. In my original post I used two examples, a live music show and an amusement park.

“Just immersive sound and visuals have the potential to duplicate much of what is fun about a lot of experiences. Moreover, if the virtual space were shared and populated by other virtual reality users, than you could reproduce an important social component to many experiences.

There is not a lot of discussion of the fact that virtual reality might increasingly compete economically with real experiences. For example, the music industry realizes it can’t make much money off of selling records any more, so they have started focusing on other revenue streams like live shows. And this works because right now I don’t think there are many fans who watch a youtube video of a band playing live and think “Great, now I don’t need to spend $25 and go see them.” But one can imagine that if virtual reality technology made a few large (but very conceivable) leaps forward, this equation might start to shift.

Keep in mind there are two steps to any digitization process: the scan/record step and the print/playback step. Both are critical. So when I talk about better virtual reality I am not just talking about the print/playback step—things like 3D goggles, surround sound, and tactile feedback, I am also talking about big advances in the scan/record part of the process. Advances that might make it possible to say, stroll through a theme park and surreptitiously record the experience itself. And I don’t just mean record the experience in a linear manner. I mean record enough salient details about the geography that a sufficiently advanced algorithm could then use that data to create a digital model of the park’s layout. Now imagine that as other people walk through the park, some of them are also recording and uploading details to help improve the quality of your model. Pretty soon you have a digital file somewhere that in some senses is a copy of the whole theme park, ready for illegal file sharing. The virtual theme park might be missing some details, like the smell of churros, but such deficits would be only a few technology cycles and software updates away from being corrected.”

Granted, the theme park example is extreme and primarily intended as a helpful thought experiment. But I was interested to discover recently that the Smithsonian intends to digitize large amounts of their collection.

“With [a] high-end scanner, as well as less expensive tools that include normal digital cameras and freely available cloud-based digitization software, Metallo and his fellow 3D digitization coordinator Vince Rossi are slowly setting out to begin building a new Smithsonian digital archive. They hope this initiative will eventually lead to scores of 3D printed exhibits, as well as countless 3D models that could theoretically be used in the museums, in schools, or just about anywhere people have an interest in the Smithsonian’s vast physical holdings. They’re creating what Rossi called a “digital surrogate,” a “new form of museum collection” that could mean a wealth of information that could be available to anyone with a computer, or at the very least, to a wide variety of museums, schools, and other interested institutions.” (read more)

So it may not be too far in the future that we will at least be able to digitize the museum-going experience. I can’t imagine it would be too hard to take all of those digital models and build a multiplayer “video-game” that allows you to walk around, observe exhibits from all sides, and possibly even interact with other museum-goers. And if this technology works well, it seems reasonable to expect a lot of other “digital surrogates.”

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