AI and VR in Museums

On June 14, 2018, the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) met to explore the final frontiers of museum technology and to discuss strategies for successfully incorporating technology into museums. We met at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center where we tried out the museum’s artificial intelligence (AI) experience. We also heard about a new virtual reality (VR) experience at the First Division Museum. I took away two main points from these incredible presentations: 1) don’t incorporate technology for technology’s sake and 2) technology is really difficult to implement successfully.

Don’t Incorporate Technology for Technology’s Sake 

The Illinois Holocaust Museum’s AI and the First Division Museum’s VR are so impactful because they solve issues that can only truly be addressed through technology.

Shoshana Buchholz-Miller, the Vice President of Education and Exhibitions, informed us “all of the student groups that visit the museum hear from a survivor” because hearing from a survivor “creates this human connection, this historical empathy.” However, Holocaust survivors are quickly passing away, leaving Bucholz-Miller to contemplate, “how are we going to tell these stories for generations to come?” After considering several options, Bucholz-Miller and her team determined that artificial intelligence would be the best way to preserve the experience of engaging with a living survivor.

We experienced the AI technology firsthand and I found the AI technology to be incredibly successful at approximating the experience of speaking with a living survivor. During the CMEG meeting, we spoke with an AI version of a Holocaust survivor named Fritzie Fritzhall. As the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor and an active member of the Chicago Jewish community, I have heard many survivors speak in person. I was almost as touched engaging with the AI version of Fritzshall as I have been while engaging with living survivors. I cried several times during the Q&A session. As Bucholz-Miller stated, “the technology disappears for visitors because they’re so engaged in the story.” The Holocaust Museum is still in the process of collecting visitor feedback on the technology. However, based on preliminary findings, Bucholz-Miller reported that ninety-nine percent of visitors felt connected to the survivors after engaging with the AI.

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Shoshana Bucholz-Miller speaking about the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s AI technology

Luci Creative, an exhibit fabrication firm, developed a similarly successful technology experience for the First Division Museum. Kiah Shapiro, a Creative Strategist at Luci, related that the First Division Museum asked her team to craft an exhibit that would demonstrate how soldiers’ training allows them to make quick decisions in difficult situations. Shapiro was limited in the ways she could tell the soldiers’ stories by the museum’s small space. Shapiro and her team decided to use VR because it allowed them to create a “tightly scripted film that could be delivered in a small space. It was also authentic, not a video game.” Shapiro is proud that Luci filmed the experience “with real soldiers at Fort Riley.” In fact, Luci’s set was so realistic that Shapiro reported the soldiers at Fort Riley are “still using the set for training.” Kyle Mathers, the Exhibits and Collections Processing Technician at the First Division museum, stated that the reception of Luci’s VR experience has been outstanding. “Adults love it. Kids love it,” he reported.

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Kiah Shapiro presenting on Luci Creative’s work at the First Division Museum

Technology is really difficult to implement successfully

Both the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s team and First Division Museum’s teams have dealt with some challenging technological hiccups. One major difficulty has been that a trained volunteer must be present to facilitate the experiences. Bucholz-Miller divulged that the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s AI, “can be kind of clunky and doesn’t always answer the right question.” In order to get the AI to answer the correct question, the individual asking the question must carefully phrase the question in a way that the AI will understand. Therefore, the facilitator must be deeply familiar with both the technology and the stories of the recorded survivors. During the CMEG meeting, Bucholz-Miller facilitated our interactions with the AI version of Fritzhall, rephrasing our questions to make them easier for her to understand.

Shapiro and Mathers disclosed that the First Division Museum has also required th assistance of volunteers to facilitate the museum’s technology experience. Shapiro initially thought the VR experience at the First Division Museum would not be facilitated. However, Mathers and his team quickly discovered that many of the visitors had never seen VR goggles and did not know how to use the technology by themselves. Additionally, some visitors were too rough with the equipment. “We’ve had to replace twelve Oculus headsets,” Mathers told us. Therefore, the First Division Museum decided that volunteer facilitators were necessary to protect the VR headsets and to make the experience accessible to less tech savvy audiences.

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Kyle Mathers speaking about his work at the First Division Museum

Many of the difficulties that the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the First Division Museum have faced may disappear as VR and AI become less expensive, easier to use, and more pervasive. However, VR and AI are currently not for the faint of heart. As Brice Puls, an independent interactives developer stated, “If something can be done analog, that’s quite possibly a better way to go. Don’t try to create an application that is just there to be technology. Play to your strengths.” The Illinois Holocaust Museum and the First Division Museum have put a huge amount of time and resources into successfully implementing technology.

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Brice Puls sharing his advice for developing interactives

In short, AI and VR are tools, not magic wands. Technology will be useful to your museum only if you are implementing it for clear reasons and you have the monetary and staff resources to maintain it properly.

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Kyle Mathers’ photo of Abraham Lincoln in a VR headset
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