Want to be alone with a masterpiece? Try AR

You are looking straight into the eyes of a baboon. You are so close that you could touch it. Everywhere you look, extinct animals are springing into life. A tiny, skeletal bat crawls onto your hand; close by you hear an ominous roar. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has taken the promise of augmented reality quite literally: its Skin & Bones app brings exhibits to life.

The Bone Hall opened in 1881: its name alone suggests that this was a place which catered to the Victorian taste for the macabre and the scientific. It is the oldest collection in the Smithsonian, with a standing exhibition of over 300 animal skeletons. But if the spectacle of death can still easily capture the twenty-first century visitor, the science and labels and information guides that attach to such exhibits are all too easily ignored. How do you communicate with visitors who have come to expect a lively, interactive experience? The solution for the Smithsonian was Skin & Bones, a free app which uses 3D imagery to clothe animal skeletons with a virtual skin, and uses 3D tracking to bring them to life. According to its designer, Diana Marques, visitors who saw the augmented content ‘stayed longer with the app, stayed longer at the exhibit, they stopped more often.’ Users learned more – visual learners respond more easily to multimedia than to text – and visitors reported that the use of motion greatly added to the experience.

AR layers a virtual skin over the real world. It does what it says: it augments, it adds on, it creates new layers of imagery or information. But what if its real value lay in doing the opposite? What if the most useful thing an AR app can do for a visitor is to strip away nuisance and distractions?

One of Barcelona’s most popular visitor attractions is doing just that. The growing local campaign against tourism is just one symptom of the strain created by the influx of visitors to the city. Among its most popular sites are Antoni Gaudí’s extraordinary buildings: modernist confections that marry organic shapes with fine technical design. But at Casa Batlló, his grand townhouse on Passeig de Gracia, the physical confines of what was once a family home can create a frustrating experience for visitors. AR has provided an accidental solution to the problem.

Each visitor is given a guide that shows the house as it was in the early twentieth century, when the Battló family was in residence. Rooms are brought to life with contemporary furniture and ornaments, and there are playful surprises here and there: a turtle might swim by and land on a feature Gaudí designed in the shape of his shell. The AR gives the visitor a sense of life as it was lived in the building, and also captures Gaudí’s fanciful spirit – highlighting his architecture’s allusions to the natural world. It also has another, less expected, benefit. Seen through a tablet, rooms that are crowded with tourists are suddenly empty. Every visitor has a clear line of sight. Technically speaking, the trick is achieved with virtual reality rather than AR, but the VR element is used with restraint. That was a wise decision. There is always a danger of shutting off the visitor behind a screen, but in Casa Battló the visit does not become a virtual experience: the mix of AR and VR draws the visitor to look more closely at the rooms around them, rather than retreat into a virtual world. But what is really clever about its design is that this AR achieves what seems impossible: it allows you to feel alone in this beautiful space. And in crowded Barcelona, that is a valuable commodity.

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