Should a Museum Start with Virtual Reality Before the Metaverse?

Should a Museum Start with Virtual Reality Before the Metaverse?

The art industry's pivot towards digital technologies has seen museum curators, artists and archivists exploring different ways to make art accessible through digital media. And virtual reality (VR) is at the forefront of this exploration. However, a lot of museum curators are wondering if they should first test the waters, so to speak with VR before establishing whether the metaverse might be something they should seriously look into and perhaps even put some money aside for.

The Argument for VR Before the Metaverse

To determine if a museum should test the waters of VR before the metaverse, we must first distinguish the two. According to the Oxford dictionary VR is "the computer-generated simulatgion of a 3 dimensional image or environment that be be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way."

It may seem like the speculation around VR hasn’t lived up to its hype, however, it is being adopted, albeit somewhat slowly, in all types of industries – including the art field. VR headsets allow people to experience art, artifacts, and culture in ways that would not be possible with traditional methods. Viewers get to immerse themselves in a 3D space, explore works from all angles, and investigate layers of depth beyond what physical walls offer. 

For example, in 2016, the Philadelphia's Franklin Museum offered a VR option to explore different worlds, including the vast universe, ocean depths, and even the confines of a human body. As with all virtual reality experiences, i.e., gaming and film, the idea is to give visitors an interactive adventure unlike any other.

While nobody knows exactly how the metaverse will turn out or what it will look like exactly, our best guess is it will be a fully immersive and explorable 3D world where you can communitate with others in the same world. 

Well-known tech companies like Meta and Microsoft are racing to build the first popularized metaverse but there are other lesser known companies like Decentraland, Sandbox and NVIDIA who hope to be the first ones who build a usable metaverse. 

Ideally, the metaverse will have the advantage over VR in terms of user involvement, flexibility, and engagement.  But VR has its advantages, though, in terms of cost and ease of implementation. It requires only a headset and a compatible device and usually doesn't require any coding experience or large-scale design work. This makes it much easier for museums to dip their toes into the digital art landscape without investing time and money.

That said, the metaverse holds great promise for the art world. It would allow artists to create virtual galleries and entire art worlds without worrying about physical space constraints. Artists could even bring their work to life in ways never before possible, like creating interactive performances or virtual sculptures that viewers can explore from any angle. 

Traditional museums should capitalize on VR to get a sense of the art world's potential before investing in the metaverse. After all, it's a win-win situation since the introduction of VR is merely an "enhancement" of how these museums present their existing collections to the public. In other words, no drastic changes exist, i.e., create new displays or galleries. 

The Louvre in Paris introduced "Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass" in 2019 - an exploration of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting through a combination of VR and augmented reality (AR). The move was met with enthusiasm from the art community because of the combination of interactive design and mobile availability through Android, iOS, and VIVEPORT, a virtual reality app store. 

The Louvre could've chosen to put its money on a transition to the metaverse. But why would it take a chance when the museum already has an established presence in the art world? The introduction of VR enabled the museum to test digitally enhanced experiences without having to commit to a complete transition to the metaverse. 

There's nothing wrong with museums jumping right into the metaverse. It all comes down to what direction a museum would like to take and how it plans to bring its artwork to life for viewers.

For instance, some museums were naturally born in the metaverse. In other words, they don't have existing physical galleries but exist solely in the virtual world. Musée Dezentral and the Museum of Crypto Art in Somnium Space were created to host a rotating collection of artworks. Unlike traditional museums, they don't acquire art because it fits into a specific collection or theme. As such, they're able to offer more experimental and edgy content - something that would usually be considered too risky for physical displays. 

So, this argument goes two ways: Museums with already-built physical collections should explore VR before the metaverse. And museums that don't have existing physical galleries might be better off testing the waters of the metaverse from the get-go. 

VR is a Step in the Transition to the Metaverse

Virtual reality is, in a way, a museum's ticket to the eventual transition to the metaverse. With an existing trove of artworks and the potential to create new experiences, traditional museums must embrace VR as a cost-effective way to enter the digital art space. They can add digital layers to their physical spaces, create digital-only galleries, and host interactive performances. And supposed they succeed, that's when a venture into the metaverse should come naturally. 

Digital Collectables  as the Way to the Metaverse

Just as the physical museum has become a cultural hub, the same can be said for its digital counterpart. By embracing VR-enabled technologies, museums could create their metaverse and host exhibitions with international artists. 

But no other prospect carries more intrigue in the metaverse than digital collectables. With a VR offering, museums will see a significant increase in foot traffic (visitors) in their physical galleries. Once this happens, they can explore the possibility of minting some of their physical collections into digital collectables and enticing people to buy them. Why would they do so? Well, in one word: liquidity. By minting parts of their collections as digital collectables, museums tap into the growing crypto market and open up a new source of revenue. 

The British Museum and Russia's State Hermitage Museum are two examples of institutions that have already embraced Digital collectables. The former even offers a 360-degree experience of its pieces, enabling art enthusiasts to explore them in greater detail. Both museums made substantial profits by minting some of their pieces and auctioning them off as digital collectables. 

Since minting digital collectables happen in the blockchain and their sale in online marketplaces, museums who delve into this venture are putting one foot into the metaverse. 

Cost as the Biggest Challenge

Of course, the transition to the metaverse isn't exactly cheap. It requires a large capital outlay and an understanding of emerging technologies, particularly the blockchain and digital collectables. As such, many museums are opting for a slow adaption to the metaverse to mitigate any financial risks. 

There is still a lot unknown about the metaverse and so it's still too early to tell when we'll witness mass adoption, and until then, museums must do their best to leverage existing tech to bridge the gap between physical and digital galleries.