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Time Travel as a Visitor Experience: A Virtual Reality Exhibit Template for Historical Exploration

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Developments in digital infrastructures and expanding digital literacies lower barriers for museums and visitor centres to provide new interactive experiences with their collections and heritage. With virtual reality more accessible, heritage institutions are eager to find out how this technology can create new methods in interpretation, learning and visualisation. This paper reviews a virtual reality framework implemented into exhibits in three cultural heritage centres. By taking advantage of existing visitor digital literacies, the exhibits provided accessible immersive exploratory experiences for inter-generational audiences. The digital framework developed is a template for virtual reality content interaction that is both intuitive and powerful. The exhibits include digital reconstructions of physical scenes using game engines for a convincing visual experience. We contextualise the logic behind a virtual reality setup for the separate institutions, how they assisted with the narrative as well as if an immersive digital environment provided a more profound response in users. Our aim is to communicate approaches, methodologies and content used to overcome the challenge of presenting a period in history to a modern audience, while using emergent technology to build connections and disseminate knowledge that is memorable and profound.
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Time Travel as a Visitor Experience: A Virtual Reality
Exhibit Template for Historical Exploration
Catherine Anne Cassidy1, Adeola Fabola1, Iain Oliver1, Alan Miller1
1School of Computer Science, University of St Andrews, United Kingdom
cc274, aef6, iao, alan.miller@st-andrews.ac.uk
http://www.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk/
Abstract. Developments in digital infrastructures and expanding digital literacies
lower barriers for museums and visitor centres to provide new interactive expe-
riences with their collections and heritage. With virtual reality more accessible,
heritage institutions are eager to find out how this technology can create new
methods in interpretation, learning and visualisation. This paper reviews a virtual
reality framework implemented into exhibits in three cultural heritage centres.
By taking advantage of existing visitor digital literacies, the exhibits provided
accessible immersive exploratory experiences for inter-generational audiences.
The digital framework developed is a template for virtual reality content interac-
tion that is both intuitive and powerful. The exhibits include digital reconstruc-
tions of a physical scenes using game engines for a convincing visual experience.
We contextualise the logic behind a virtual reality setup for the separate institu-
tions, how they assisted with the narrative as well as if an immersive digital en-
vironment provided a more profound response in users. Our aim is to communi-
cate approaches, methodologies and content used to overcome the challenge of
presenting a period in history to a modern audience, while using emergent tech-
nology to build connections and disseminate knowledge that is memorable and
profound.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Cultural Heritage, Museum Exhibits.
1 Introduction
Opportunities presented by advancing technology can be used to enrich and connect
museum visitors to archaeological and historical research in ways which provide an
authentic experience [1]. This paper suggests a framework for virtual reality (VR) ex-
hibits located within cultural heritage visitor centres and museums. It draws upon ex-
perience developing and deploying VR interactives for museums.
The application of emergent technologies to cultural heritage offers the opportunity
to: widen participation in its construction, deepen understanding through holistic inter-
pretation, connect researchers and communities, communicate knowledge in engaging
and accessible ways, and stimulate debate leading to further research. For these oppor-
tunities to be realized in the context of the museum, there are specific challenges that
need to be met. These challenges are authenticity of content, motivation for continued
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learning (connecting with the subject and museum), ease of use and navigation, adapt-
ability, low maintenance, and value for money. These considerations mean VR systems
designed for home gameplay should not be directly inserted into a museum without
modification. This motivates the idea of a VR template which address all the above
issues whilst enabling specific content to be added for exhibits.
Our approach is to support creation of VR exhibits which enable users to immerse
themselves in historical content. Physical requirement consists of a screen or projection
which can be viewed by multiple visitors at once, a VR headset and controller, with its
view mirrored on the screen, and built around a graphically-capable commodity com-
puter. An introductory video is looped on the screen while the VR headset is not in use.
The exhibit can contain virtually constructed environments in large landscapes with the
ability to free roam or tour between viewpoints, spherical media (360 degree), 3D ob-
ject galleries and a virtual cinema.
Our procedural methods for digital cultural and natural heritage projects are practice-
based. This enables us to identify real world issues and creatively address them, while
meeting the immediate challenges provided as well as contributing to more general so-
lutions, such as ensuring the technology works reliably without human intervention.
This paper looks first at the context for the work; developing a conceptual frame-
work, the Virtual Reality Exhibit Template (VRET), and placing VR exhibits in the
context of mainstream media, such as movies and games, while satisfying the needs of
the museum. Next, we consider a practice-based methodology and workflows used for
creating VR exhibits. This is followed by discussion and evaluation of two exhibits.
We then discuss a framework for creating exhibits that is based upon this experience
and discuss the final exhibit developed using the template.
2 Context
Museums, as defined by UNESCO, are the guardians of tangible and intangible herit-
age, and are responsible for their “preservation and promotion” [2]. The ways in which
museums and other heritage institutions have ‘preserved and promoted’ their own nar-
ratives have evolved from simple displays to investing in the visitor experience [3].
Museums have also established themselves as modern cultural and community hubs,
not just forums for knowledge transfer, enabling community members to contribute,
express views, and tackle issues that are pertinent to society [4]. This evolution allows
for greater visitor participation and deepens ties between community and its heritage
[5].
Popular media has had an interest in presenting the past for over a century; from
silent films to period video games. Historical narratives drive multiple gaming fran-
chises such as Assassins Creed, based in an open world environment, and simulation
games such as Total War and Age of Empires. Successful commercial games use ele-
ments of learning theory, which attributes to user engagement [6]. Since history-based
video game popularity has proven the medium is engaging and immersive, institutions
such as museums have begun to follow suit by exploring possibilities with emergent
technologies.
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VR offers the possibility of combining the visual power of films with the interaction
of games in an immersive setting that transports users to locations remote in time or
space. This immersion can include full scale VR room set ups [8], interactive projec-
tions [7] or headsets which can lead to transformative experiences. The continuous re-
search and development of VR along with increasing digital literacies implies that it is
possible to deliver large scale VR scenes in museum exhibitions that are accessible and
comprehensible to most visitors. This in turn allows for intensive dissemination that
connects a user with the narrative of the exhibit, strengthening the relationship between
themselves, heritage and the exhibit’s message.
Previous projects that lay the foundations for the VR exhibits we examine are based
in Scotland; the Virtual Museum of Caen, The Bannockburn Visitor Centre, the Picts
& Pixels Exhibition at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery and the Curing Yard. Collab-
oration between the research team and Timespan Museum and Art Gallery developed
digital representation of Caen, a pre-clearances Highland village in the Strath of Kildo-
nan [8]. This included a VR room where visitors controlled an avatar using an Xbox
Kinect to explore a reconstruction of the village. The Bannockburn Visitor Centre al-
lowed visitors to fight the Battle of Bannockburn themselves, changing the outcome
based on the user’s decisions. The Picts & Pixels exhibition adopted a mixed reality
approach in which physical objects and digital exhibits were displayed in parallel and
complementary to one another [7]. Interactive photospheres, digitised models and a VR
headset facilitated multimodal interaction with the world of the Scottish Picts. The Cur-
ing Yard was a second collaboration with Timespan Museum, which included an im-
mersive controller-free VR headset exhibit of a curing yard, historically represented in
the exact location of the install within the museum [9].
3 Design and Development
Implementation of the VRET was made when the projects were in early stages of de-
velopment. Each collaboration had a wealth of resources and materials that would sup-
plement their chosen narrative and wished to experiment with latest technologies. Dig-
ital reconstructions were to be in each project as a base of work, along with a combina-
tion of provided and newly generated content.
Stakeholders worked in collaboration throughout the development of the exhibits;
the majority were experts in the related subjects, such as archaeologists, historians, ar-
chivists and museum professionals. Scenes to be digitally reconstructed were discussed
with the research team and those affiliated; decisions and adjustments occurred
throughout the entirety of the builds. Selection of objects to be digitised, sites for aerial
and spherical capture and narratives were chosen early in the creation process. Content
varied between exhibits, based on what was available to the team and the level of im-
portance to the overall narrative.
Further development of the technology and interpretation for use in museums, the
framework has the possibility of connecting ourselves and our work with institutions
as well as their network of organisations. This offers the opportunity for bilateral
knowledge exchange. In each project we arranged workshops and discussions with
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local partners, to better understand the needs of the organisations and to deepen local
understanding of both the historical research and technology which shapes the exhibit.
3.1 Workflow for Creating Virtual Reality Exhibits
The workflow for VR exhibit creation is a multistep process. The first phase is to iden-
tify the subject and possible narratives to be used to tell relevant stories. This is fol-
lowed by identification of digital resources to be used in the project, pulling from an
inventory of existing resources or media to be created. Digital resources often consist
of terrain, models, photospheres, aerial footage, video, audio and historical photos. Fi-
nally, an investigation into best methods for navigation of media and narratives, which
includes interpretation and interaction, is included into the system design.
Landscapes and Terrain. Illustrated throughA Boy and his Kitedemo [10], now
called the Open World Demo Collection [11], Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) is capable of
supporting landscapes that are hundreds of square miles in size using commodity hard-
ware. This offers the opportunity of providing landscapes within the virtual environ-
ment that give context to the subject of the exhibit. In the context of a heritage exhibit,
it is desirable for landscapes to accurately represent the real world, seen in Figure 1.
The following procedures can be used to create digital landscapes based upon survey
data.
Terrain data acquired from appropriate sources, such as Ordnance Survey (OS) data
or LIDAR data, are often dictated by region. Data is combined from the supplied tiles
into a single GeoTiff file using QGIS* (open source geometric information system).
An OpenStreetMap layer is required as well as a shapefile with polygons for the extent
of the terrain. A print layout is necessary from the supplied data and layers to import
the terrain into UE4.
The information is imported into World Machine, a 3D terrain generator, to a file
with existing set of nodes. The heights of the terrain are programmed into the project
properties and extents for desired map locations are created. By selecting extent and
output nodes, processing results in a PNG file that are used to create a terrain in UE4.
The terrain material is copied to a new project in UE4. A new level is required to
host the terrain and relevant files. A spreadsheet is used to calculate the location and
scale values for the terrain.
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Fig. 1. Large scale terrain created for Tomintoul exhibit.
System Design and Implementation. The VRET framework is built around UE4 but
adds functionality that is required for the game engine to be used effectively as a public
exhibit though a bespoke Chimera system, answering a challenge realized early in de-
velopment. This includes managing idle screens and video overlays as well as allowing
pop up screens for interpretation and automating management functions, such as start
of day startup and end of day shutdown. It also enables error detection and correction
as well as remote access for content updates.
The system interactions are shown in the diagram Figure 2. UE4 and Chimera com-
municate over a network connection using a plugin to UE4 which was purpose created.
This plugin allows the developer to send and receive messages in a text format between
UE4 and Chimera.
Fig. 2. System interaction with the user.
In the VR exhibits, the UE4 executable drives the interaction by taking input from the
user and signaling to Chimera to change state in order to display information to observ-
ers. The UE4 game consists of a single persistent level and several streaming levels
which are loaded when needed, seen in Figure 3. When the user starts interacting with
the system, they see a menu system in the Start level which is loaded when the system
starts or returns from the idle state. The menu provides 3 or 4 buttons to the user. To
select these buttons the user looks at them and then presses the center navigational but-
ton. This action fire an eventwhich is handled by UE4s blueprint system. This
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allows event-based programming to be used to control the virtual environment and ac-
tors within it.
Fig. 3. Blueprint structure of persistent and streaming levels in UE4. The visual code unloads the
current level and loads the menu level. Fig. 4. Blueprint code structure that sends a signal to
Chimera that it should enter or leave idle state in UE4.
The system registers when the idle count reaches the specified value and transitions to
the idle state by sending a message to the Chimera to display the idle video. Chimera
does this by changing to an internal state where it displays a video, seen in Figure 4.
When a user then interacts with the system by picking up the headset, UE4 signals
Chimera to return to the main play state, which removes the video from the screen.
The exhibit has a purpose-built startup script which initiates the programme and cre-
ates a connection to a server using an SSH server setup which is used to log in to the
remote machine. A VNC server runs on the remote machine which allows remote ac-
cess to the desktop without required a fixed IP address. All VR exhibit have the afore-
mentioned capabilities, allowing for automatic start up and remote access for address-
ing system issues.
4 The Illicit Still Experience (Tomintoul & Glenlivet Discovery
Centre)
The Tomintoul & Glenlivet Discovery Centre (TGDC) is in the highland village of
Tomintoul surrounded by the Glenlivet estate. Whisky has played an important role in
the area’s history, taking advantage of the surrounding landscape and continues to be a
crucial part of the local and Scottish economy. With the HLF and LEADER funded
redevelopment of the Discovery Centre in 2017, the Tomintoul & Glenlivet Develop-
ment Trust (TGDT) and Tomintoul & Glenlivet Landscape Partnership (TGLP) were
interested in using HIE Year of History and Heritage funding to install an immersive
interactive exhibit that could accomplish the following goals: 1) communicate the con-
nection between the natural and cultural heritage of the area 2) compliment other
whisky displays in local distilleries with historical beginnings of the industry 3) show
the landscape and archaeological sites as historically accurate as possible in the 18th
century 4) invest in emergent technology that would be best suited for visually telling
their narrative, interest visitors who may not have used the technology before and
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facilitate new experiences in the future 5) generate enthusiasm for visitors to explore
the sites themselves 6) allow accessibility to sites if visitors could not physically do
visit.
Elements of the VRET for Tomintoul were based off design and functionality
changes after the VR installation in the Picts & Pixels exhibition. This included a single
button design as opposed to a controller-based design which simplified user interaction.
The exhibit featured similar components such as a VR Oculus headset, a screen, spher-
ical images and 3D reconstructed environments. The exhibit comprised of a digital re-
construction of Ballanloan, an 18th century settlement of cottages and kilns, an illicit
still hidden in a cave next to a stream and barley fields. Historical and landscape evi-
dence were provided by OS data. Content included the digital reconstruction imple-
mented as both a descriptive photosphere tour and as an environment for open world
exploration as well as a real-world photosphere tour, shown in Figure 5. As a request,
a virtual theatre option was developed to show videos of both the digital reconstruction
and real-world aerial footage within the headset.
Fig. 5. Example of real content in photosphere tour, Glenlivet Distillery.
5 Skriðuklaustur Monastery (Skriðuklaustur Cultural Center
& Historical Site)
Skriðuklaustur is in the east of Iceland where a Catholic monastery and a consecrated
church were found to be inhabited during the 1500’s. An archaeological excavation
began in 2002 at the site and continued for a decade after. The excavation uncovered
the building foundations, information about the building materials used and unique ar-
tefacts [12]. Ongoing projects have been exploring the site through technology; a pre-
vious reconstruction of the monastery, aerial footage shot along a proposed route to the
monastery over a glacier, and digitisation of objects from the excavation. Continuation
with the newest iteration of the reconstruction led both researchers and Skriðuklaustur
to choose the VRET as an appropriate method of content interaction. The interactive’s
goals were: 1) to offer an updated visual representation of the monastastic ruins 2) cre-
ate an immersive experience by allowing visitors to explore the ruins inside and out 3)
allow accessibility for visitors who cannot visit the site or when weather restricts access
4) use emergent technology that grants full immersion into a period in Iceland’s history
5) an attraction for visitors to visit the remote museum.
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Skriðuklaustur was the next evolution in the VRET design and functionality after its
installation in Tomintoul. The single button was kept for simplicity as the remote en-
couraged use. The exhibit features an Oculus headset, a screen, photospheres, digital
reconstructions and 3D objects added into the reconstruction. The updated reconstruc-
tion of the monastery and the surrounding landscape was included, as well as the inte-
riors of the church. 3D digitised objects were placed back into the reconstruction as
they would have been found during that time. The digital landscape was built from
terrain data provided by the National Land Survey of Iceland. Content levels included
a descriptive photosphere tour, a 3D object gallery to interrogate artefacts and a video
theatre for real world and virtual footage.
6 Evaluation and Evolution of Design
All exhibits used for cultural and natural heritage dissemination go through multiple
assessments before, during and after installation. The systems are evaluated from the
following perspectives: 1) community 2) museum 3) non-community visitors 4) field
specialists, as well assessing the following aspects of the system: 1) usability 2) respon-
siveness 3) enjoyment 4) engagement 5) learning 6) motivation for further learning.
The exhibitions were well received and collected feedback:A fantastic museum and
resource for our school trip! Excellent activities for the students and informative ex-
hibits about local history. We particularly enjoyed the ‘den’, VR and making poppies!
Thank you!”, “Excellent visitor centre do try the 3-D experience in the corner!!”,
“Wow what a different the place looks amazing, all the new tech is great, good how it’s
been brought up to date…”, “The best museum ever and the best VR reality”. Whilst
the feedback is positive, it also illustrates that visitors see the VR exhibit as an inte-
grated part of the museum and that visitors with a historical interest in the museum view
new technology in a positive light.
Laboratory research and evaluation has been ongoing since the creation of the VR
exhibit framework; originally with the Curing Yard, a single level exhibit for Timespan
museum, and then a multi-level exhibit for the Picts & Pixels exhibit in Perth Museum
& Art Gallery summer 2017. Evaluation from the first exhibits evolved design and sys-
tem methods to implement changes for the next exhibit, the Illicit Still Experience for
TGDC. Exhibits included in this publication have developed from installation, use and
evaluation of the previous, leading to dynamic and effective framework.
Based on user evaluation at an open day event for the Picts & Pixels exhibition, users
reported the Xbox controller was hard to use as the VR headset occluded the user field
of vision [7]. If the user did not have video game experience nor read the instructions
before wearing the headset, they had trouble associating directions navigators to the
buttons associated on the controller. User evaluation from the Curing Yard showed the
benefits from a hands-free system but lacked navigational ability for multiple levels
[9]. Due to this response, the Oculus controller was adapted for future use as it was
more functional and efficient than controller-free design yet less complex than a multi-
button game controller. Skriðuklaustur retains the Xbox controller due to an initial sup-
ply issue but is due to switch over to the Oculus remote in the future.
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An internal assessment of the look and feel and usability of user interfaces within
the levels, along with informal user evaluation in the field, confirmed that the descrip-
tive photosphere tour was not intuitive and had issues with textual display. After instal-
lation in Tomintoul, its design evolved for Skriðuklaustur but was completely rede-
signed for Finlaggan. It was decided to combine the photosphere tour with the open
world exploration level, allowing for a narrative along with open environment explora-
tion.
6.1 Organisational Evaluation - Tomintoul
Museum staff at TGDC have recorded informal evaluations since the installation of the
exhibit in spring 2018. Evaluations in this publication include interaction and mode of
engagement, while written assessment has been recorded in visitor log books. Future
plans include VR and exhibit elements taught in workshops at TGDC and formal eval-
uations of visitors and attendees.
Interaction. TGDC caters to a wide variety of visitors while it is open to the public
during the peak tourist months of April through October. The centre opens for events
and groups during the winter months, allowing year-round engagement with the VR
exhibit. By October 2018, 10,000 visitors had gone through the centre, a 20% increase
from 2016 and 50% increase from 2014 [13]. The redevelopment of the centre and its
use of VR received national recognition from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she
toured in August 2018.
Dedicated staff do not supervise the exhibit but are stationed nearby at a front desk
for any needed guidance and support. Thus far, there has been a wide age demographic
of users with varying level of technical skill. As a result, staff have been able to observe
diverse interactions and trends with the exhibit. Users tend to investigate the open world
exploration level for the longest period of time, likely due to the explorative nature of
the level itself; gameplay length is largely dictated by presumed comprehensive com-
pletion of the environment. Details in the open world environment such as the farm
animals have been of interest to younger users.
A spinning office chair is in place for mandatory use for those using the VR exhibit
to limit wandering and accidents, while encouraging freedom to explore the entire 360-
degree space. This has sometimes become difficult with the hardwired Oculus Rift and
gets caught if users spin in a complete circle. Staff have concluded that though entan-
glement occurs occasionally, the chair relieves users from too much disorientation,
granting staff at the front of house the ability to concentrate elsewhere.
Modes of Engagement. In TGDC, the exhibit is installed in a corner of the main room,
where visitors enter and move on to explore the traditional exhibition or the digital
library area. As a room where visitors begin their tour, groups of people can accumu-
late, limiting the direct use of the VR headset. This demonstrates the use of the screen
as an important type of engagement, as the exhibit can be a social activity for a large
group as well as self-promoting itself for later use if there is a queue. This type of
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engagement has received positive response by visitors as an unexpected aspect to the
exhibit.
6.2 Organisational Evaluation - Skriðuklaustur
Museum staff have recorded informal user evaluations since the exhibit’s installation,
including interactions at external events. The installation has been on display at the
museum since August 2018. Evaluations have included ease of use, interaction, type of
engagement from visitors, and reactions to supplementary content.
External events included Tæknidagur fjölskyldunnar (Technology Day for Family)
with over 1,700 attendees and Að heiman og heim - náms og atvinnulífssýning Austur-
lands (education and work opportunity event in East Iceland) with over 200 people who
used the exhibit. Scholarly users at the museum have included archaeologists, authori-
ties involved with archaeological sites and excavations, game developers and museum
professionals.
Interaction. Museum staff are posted in the room hosting the VR exhibit in order to
help guests and navigate them through the levels. Most guests have limited VR experi-
ence and often require guidance with the headset and Xbox controller. The Oculus Rift
‘guardian’ feature enables users to find the sensor tracking boundaries, but restricting
movement further deters wandering and accidents. The addition of knowledgeable staff
alongside the VR increases the depth of experience for a user. The visualisation of VR
and the included media constructs a connection that encourages understanding of con-
textual data, such as from an archaeological excavation. Users reacted when told the
height of a ceiling by leaning back and looking, just as most would in the reality.
When taken out to events, staff reported that a younger age demographic tend to
approach and use the exhibit, as opposed to a wider age demographic found at the mu-
seum. User at the external events tend to have used VR or video games before, so func-
tionality of the VR exhibit and operability of the navigation through the Xbox controller
requires less explanation.
Users have found the headset occludes a user’s view of the controller, navigation
through a multi-button layout is challenging if there is no prior gaming knowledge [7].
The installation retained the current controller layout as an Oculus remote did not arrive
on time for installation but will be switched over in the near future.
When visitors use the exhibit in VR mode with the headset, the experience has been
reported to be different than those who watch on the screen. The functionalities of the
exhibit are realised when using the VR headset and controller, and elements of those
capabilities do not completely transmit to passive engagement. Users reported to enjoy
“zooming in” on objects in VR while in the 3D gallery, utilising body movement to
enhance their experience.
Modes of Engagement. The dual set up of the headset and screen have allowed for
both active and passive engagement, but staff have encouraged visitors to engage with
the headset even when first reluctant. The assumption that the passive engagement of
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watching the screen is identical or similar enough to the interaction with the headset.
The distinction between the two types of engagement has been noted by visitors that
try both to be significantly different in how they interact with the content.
Large tourist groups are frequent visitors to the museum and often stay in groups
through the galleries and rooms. The passive engagement offered by the screen satisfies
visitors when in a group situation, as one user engages with the headset, the remaining
watch their actions. Staff that assist with the VR exhibit explain what is shown on the
screen to the group as well directing the user to different parts of the exhibit.
7 VR Exhibit Template (VRET)
To facilitate both an individual user and groups, the exhibit consisted of 1) Oculus VR
headset 2) a sensor for tracking headset movement 3) navigational controller 4) large
screen for mirroring actions within the headset. Each exhibit is in a central point in the
museum or centre to maximise its discovery and use by visitors. This also allowed large
groups to engage with the exhibit passively through the mirrored screen; turning the
exhibit into a social activity, as well as provide direct intellectual stimulation to the
active user.
VRET can incorporate several types of levels, all chosen from a menu system, show-
ing in Figure 6. These include 1) an open world environment 2) photosphere tours,
either real or virtual content 3) 3D model gallery for interrogating digitised objects 4)
video theatre and 5) adapted open world tour.
Fig. 6. Menu system in VRET.
The goal for navigation was to make it intuitive and consistent across levels. Working
within the Oculus ecosystem, a straight forward button system was applied. Controller-
based interaction draws from digital literacies, specifically games proficiencies and fa-
miliarities. This is useful because a significant portion of the population play video
games and these games offer benefits for learning and social interaction, hence by gam-
ification of exhibits, museums can deliver interactive experiences to visitors using fa-
miliar technologies and devices [14]. Movement through an environment was achieved
by pushing a button, then the viewpoint would move forward in the direction that the
user was looking. Menu selection was achieved by the user looking at the level selection
buttons, then clicking the main selection button when their desired button was
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highlighted. Progression through tours was through the navigation buttons designed on
a circle for non-visual prompting. When the exhibit is not in use, an idle video plays on
a loop. When the user puts on the headset, the video is interrupted, and the menu ap-
pears for level selection.
Interaction is triggered through location and through focus on interaction points. The
interpretation can be displayed in world or through a heads-up display. A user can click
on a hotspot that will bring up a 3D artefact, created through photogrammetry or laser
scanning techniques. This enables integration of digital and physical content within the
exhibit.
A gallery-like 3D environment is used to house digital artefacts. The 3D gallery is
designed to place less emphasis on the level of detail in the virtual environment, and
more emphasis on the 3D objects. Interaction is built into the gallery so that users rotate
artefacts around multiple axes, zoom in/out and move around the centrepiece. Users
can switch between artefacts in a manner that is similar to navigating through images
in a photo gallery. The framework also supports the simple virtual environment to
switch to a real or virtual photosphere, giving the object its original context.
As part of further education and development, components of the framework have
been made freely available in guides and downloadable templates for community mem-
bers and heritage practitioners with basic UE4 experience [15]. Users can combine as-
sets and functionality templates into game engine levels, populate levels with their con-
tent and package them to create immersive museum installations.
8 Lord of the Isles
Finlaggan was a seat of power for the Lord of the Isles and Clan Donald, who ruled
over parts of mainland Scotland, the Hebrides, and Ulster. The site was used for council
meetings, ceremonies and entertaining, and is located on the Scottish island of Islay,
now famous for whisky distilleries. The visitor centre is located at the site and care for
the ruins and has had a redevelopment. Archaeological excavations have occurred since
1990 which uncovered various buildings, tombstones and artefacts. Work is still ongo-
ing, with further digitisation of objects for the exhibit’s official opening in April 2019.
Other sites around the island were documented through photospheres and aerial foot-
age. The VRET was chosen as a platform for interaction due to the following reasons:
1) visually represent the numerous buildings, paths and boundaries from the site 2)
allow visitors to explore inside many of the structures as well as the grounds around
them, to further understand Medieval Scottish royal life 3) give the visitor centre a dif-
ferent platform to inform audiences of the narrative of the site 4) connect other sites on
the island that are associated with Finlaggan to be viewed all from one location.
The edition of VRET that was used in Finlaggan has been the latest design to be
installed and has gone through significant development. The exhibit includes a recon-
struction of multiple buildings, key building interiors and the surrounding landscape.
Based on evaluations from both Tomintoul and Skriðuklaustur, along with laboratory
research for more efficient exploration, the descriptive photosphere tour and open world
environment were combined to create an open world tour. The physical exhibit included
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an Oculus headset, an Oculus remote, and a screen for passive and group engagement.
Exhibit levels include the open world tour, a video theatre and a 3D object gallery. The
landscape was built using OS data and corroborated with modern drone footage.
The adapted open world tour created specifically for the Finlaggan exhibit offers two
avenues of investigation. The initial drop point in the tour displays text to give context
to the scene and times out or disappears after a click on the controller. This specifically
engineered system consists of descriptions of the parts of the reconstruction which are
displayed to the user on the headset overlay and to the observers using the Chimera
overlay for that location. This involves a state created for each location. The setup al-
lows information to be formatted differently for the user and to observers. The user can
navigate through the environment by pressing the main controller button and looking
in the direction they want to move in or by pressing the left and right buttons which
will take them to next information point, which displays more information about that
point.
9 Conclusion
In conclusion we have presented experiences in developing VR exhibits for small to
medium sized visitor centres and museums. From these experiences we have developed
both a software template for VR exhibits that can be widely used in museums and vis-
itor centres globally. We have also developed workflows for the creation of content for
VR experiences.
We have found that the aforementioned is of value for the following reasons: 1) it
makes heritage available to audiences in new engaging ways, 2) it acts a stimulus for
an holistic approach to historic research and as a platform for stimulating controversy
and discussion, 3) it engages local communities in the understanding and construction
of heritage, 4) through enhancing the visitor experience the potential exists to stimulate
the local and national economies.
Furthermore, we have resolved issues of specific relevance to museums using VR
technology, specifically: 1) the need to address ease of use; users will not expect to
invest time required in learning to play a computer game. This has guided our approach
to interaction and movement, 2) the requirement to make the system robust to minimise
the need for input from museum staff and to maximise uptime, 3) flexibility to integrate
different types of content together with the ability to connect digital artefacts with dig-
ital scenes, 4) to facilitate users in discovering points of interest, through direction,
whilst providing the freedom to explore the environment and its content.
We perceive the VRET as one approach to applying digital and VR within the con-
text of a museum. It collects together multiple forms of digital content and creates a
connection to current archaeological and historical research while ensuring a worth-
while visitor experience.
14
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