Between the megamouth shark, the bison diorama, and gangs of excited school kids, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has added a virtual reality exhibit called theBlu.
For an extra $10, on top of the $12 general admission fee, visitors can strap on a headset and explore the virtual ocean. A blue whale swims overhead. A school of silvery fish darts by. Visitors use virtual flashlights to explore the abyss.
"I definitely think it appeals to younger audiences," said Jennifer Morgan, senior project manager and exhibit developer at the museum. The organization is experimenting with the technology as a way to get more people in the door and interested in the broader collection.
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The appeal, said Morgan, isn't just limited to tech-savvy teens. She said many older adults have also checked it out. "It's the first time they've ever done anything like this and they seem to be thrilled," she said.
That exposure is something the virtual reality industry as a whole is chasing.
In spite of VR's promise as the-next-big-thing-in-tech, it still isn’t that mainstream.
"We think that out of home venues such as museums are a terrific space for the public to have their first experience in virtual reality," said Neville Spiteri, CEO of Wevr, the company behind theBlu.
Wevr loaned the museum the computers and headsets. Spiteri wouldn't disclose the rest of the financial arrangement.
But, the company's broader goal is to make fans of the technology. "Perhaps at some point, you'll be inspired to buy your own headset," said Spiteri. And, yes, subscribe to the VR content Wevr produces.
For users already comfortable with virtual reality, other museums are experimenting in a different direction. Institutions like the Smithsonian are creating VR tours that allows users to explore their galleries in 3-D and 360-degrees.
"Having something like VR enables us to go to where people are," said Sara Snyder, the head of the Media and Technology Office at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
She's not worried that VR visits will replace the real thing. Snyder said the same anxiety existed back when museums started posting pictures of artwork online. "In fact, it’s had the opposite effect," she said. "The more digital images we publish online, the greater our attendance is."
People learn something exists, said Snyder, maybe something they didn’t know about before, and want to see the original in real life.
And that feeling of "real life" is something VR isn't yet able to replicate.
"The experience is so clearly partial," said museum futurist Elizabeth Merritt from the American Alliance of Museums. "It’s a hint, it’s a glimpse. It’s like seeing a little bit of stocking, which only makes you want to see more."
In many VR tours, we miss the sounds of museums. The echoes of footsteps. The whispers of conversation.
And, said Merritt, the smells: "You go into a natural history museum, and you may not know it, you’re smelling little bits of naphtha from the specimens that have been in mothballs." Fine art museums have what she called a "cleaner and brighter smell," with "its own tang."
There may be a day when virtual reality is so immersive, the digital experience rivals the experience of real life — that I can't tell the difference between being at my desk or at the Louvre.
But no time soon.
There’s still a lot of tech that has to be created, including good quality smell-o-vision.
Click the below audio player to hear more about virtual reality's educational value: