Please Note: this series is written in 2020.
I love traveling around the world in my computer. 10 years ago, I would spend hours on Google map, visiting the great cities in panorama mode. And now it’s exciting to learn that many great museums in the world offer online VR version. Wow, my favorite sites in cities are museums, now I can see them all at nearly no cost!
I have visited so many VR museum in the last few weeks, among them, two give me the deepest impression.
National Museum of China
This is the biggest museum in Asia. It features relics of the unbroken Chinese civilization dating from 6000 B.C.E up to now, and many national treasures.
Last week, my good friend Dr Wong comes back home from Indonesia for a short stay. He had admired the museum for a long time and asks me to give him a tour this time. The museum was undergoing some renovation in the last few months, and there was news that they had reopened with something new. So I first go to their official site to check out open time and admission policy.
To my astonishment, the site says the museum doesn’t accept regular visitors in the future, and the only option they reserve for the public is the online VR version. My head is spinning, VR museums are mostly digital version, recreated in 3D, why they took such long time to make big changes to the inside then closed it for good?
Well, this is the first time they offer a VR version, and the site says “Google Walker supported”, great, so I have my headgear and Google Walker connected, let’s go!
Google Walker is my favorite VR accessory, it’s cheap enough that nearly every household has one. It’s a disc of roughly 3 square feet big, you can step on it and then start to walk in the virtual world. you can walk, make turns, the feeling is just right. And physically you will be kept in the same place. It’s only good for walking on flat ground, I believe they would have Google Mountain Hiker very soon.
After I logged into the VR museum, it seems take forever to connect me to the virtual place, it says “Queuing”. So I take off the gears and wait. Some 3 hours later, I’m finally in. I find myself at the giant entrance hall of the museum. So familiar, for I have visited the actual site for hundreds of times. And the interior is so real, strangely real.
The entrance hall is modified a bit, some big screens erected, for general introduction of the VR feature of the museum, and some user’s guide. I read the introduction a bit, and look around, then I start to understand.
What I see is not a replica of the museum in the cyber space, it’s the real one!
The museum has equipped an army of droids. In the R&D phase, there are a few generation of prototypes. Currently it’s the Gen 3 in use.
When you visit their online museum, a droid/drone would be allocated to you. The drone is driven by your body move and the cameras are synched to your head gear. Then the drone would take your place to visit the museum.
I expect to see lots of drones hovering in the hall, but I can see none of them. Instead I see lots of “people” walking around, they are in simple silhouette, with an avatar image on head. Soon I understand those are in fact other people’s drones, simple image processing technique makes them look more human. And going close I can say “Hi” to them. From the head images I can see there are people from all countries of the world.
As the VR museum just opened for a few days, there are lots of visitors, I understand why it takes me 3 hours to connect. They just don’t have enough drones, and I was queuing for one.
I soon realize, to solve the queuing dilemma , the museum needs to be able to accommodate a lot of flying drones at the same time, that the drones should be made as small as possible. By today’s technology, a camera carrying drone could be made infinitely small. However, to produce stereo 3D feeling for the VR viewer, there need to be two cameras, and they should be positioned 6.5cm apart. So this might be the most compact design:
As I going around, I see the modifications to the museum is minimal, the permanent displays are still there as in the old days. I first go to the “Ancient China” show in B1 floor. The artifacts are still in their position, just like old friends welcoming me. I feel something changed, but can’t tell at first.
I look into the terra-cotta warrior, I can get so close that I can see the tiny nail head on the armor, and a few faded pigment trapped in small seams, which suggests the dull clay figure was once splendidly painted. I believe there used to be a circle of safety bar around the figure, that we could only see him from 6 feet away. Now the bar is removed, we can get very close. And I find that when I’m close enough, the drone would cease to go further. I try with couples of artifacts, the same. I think there’s some algorithm prevents the drones from touching the valuables.
And I see not only the safety bars are removed, the glass cases of most artifacts are gone. It makes sense, as there’s no actual people in the hall, and with crash-proof algorithm in place, there’s no need of those barriers.
I remember that the instruction says I can take pictures with the drone camera. That is great. In the old days, the reflective glass case is my big headache. To my surprise, the drone has a “Tripod” shooting mode, that is to stabilize the drone in the air while taking the shoot. The lighting in the hall is dim, I tried a 2.5 sec exposure. Fantastic! Very sharp picture with no grains at all.
I hover around in the museum for a few hours, taking pictures, and forget to eat my super. The museum has extended the opening time, 5 hours more each day. Well, the maintenance needed is reduced. I think if the museum is fully digital, it could open 24/7.
This is my feeling in general, the vision couldn’t be more real, and the visit is very comfortable, for the Google Walker and goggle synch so well, you won’t have the dizzy feeling.
And I fancy this is a very green museum. For the series of interconnected museum buildings are monstrous, each summer and winter they would swallow huge volume of power to cool or heat the interior. Now as the museum is virtually no-man’s zone, no need to turn the air conditioners on.
The great thing is, like in the old days, the museum is free for visit. So, what are you waiting for? Connect your head gear and go:
In the next article, I will take you to the Louvre, there more exciting VR technique and experience await !
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