SINGAPORE: I’m staring directly into the stern eyes of the Roman god Jupiter.
Resisting the temptation to reach out and touch his golden robe, I look down to see that I’m hovering in mid-air in front of this marble and bronze colossus from the first century. All around the room, other ancient statues of gods and emperors beckon.
I take off my headset and I’m back to reality – surrounded by other people wearing similar headsets looking left and right, transported to other worlds.
My brief “trip” to Russia’s State Hermitage Museum was one of the 18 virtual reality (VR) experiences currently found at the National Museum of Singapore’s basement. Elsewhere, I had stepped among the ruins of the Souk of Aleppo and other ancient sites in Syria. I hitched a ride with a cartoon busker and his daughter; heard actress Geena Davis whispering in my ear as I was surrounded by lions and dragons; and saw a flying saucer looming above me.
The showcase runs until Sunday (Dec 10) and is free to the public, with registration here.
It kicks off the museum’s latest and boldest initiative called Digimuse, a year-long project related to VR and all things digital.
THE REALITY OF VIRTUAL REALITY
VR technology is shaping up to be the next big thing at museums – and NMS wants in. In her opening speech at the Digimuse conference on Friday (Dec 8), museum director Angelita Teo said: “Virtual, augmented or otherwise – digital is certainly a reality that we as museums and cultural institutions have to confront and come to terms with.”
NMS’ new flirtation with VR has been the logical next step in its digital adventures. It has used holograms, set up a digital gallery, gone into augmented reality and transformed William Farquhar’s animal and plant drawings into a trippy interactive digital installation – all in the hopes of engaging museum goers even more.
And these early innovations have had some effect. According to Teo, the Story Of The Forest installation has resulted in a 30 to 35 per cent increase in visitors wanting to see Farquhar’s actual drawings.
But Digimuse is still in its infancy stages. The ongoing showcase is simply a teaser of possible things to come – and at the moment, they’re still in the process of reaching out collaborators from the creative and technology communities.
Digimuse programme director Jervais Choo said they’re adopting a “cautious but enthusiastic” approach and won’t be diving into technology for the sake of it. Before August, there are plans to present little digital experiments but people will have to wait until August 2018, when there will hopefully be a sizeable showcase that will range from VR and AR projects to other digital innovations such as chatbots, artificial intelligence and sensors.
TENTATIVE VIRTUAL STEPS
Nevertheless, the museum is already taking tentative steps. The VR showcase’s curator Iman Ismail revealed they’re currently in talks with the Heritage Conservation Centre on perhaps doing something similar to the State Hermitage Museum’s virtual room filled with ancient statues.
Citing the potential in using the many important artefacts from Singapore’s own national collection, Iman pointed out how the Singapore Stone – which admittedly looks simply like an important chunk of rock – could be brought to life.
Using VR, people could go really close or see it from different angles, he said. Or they can take things even further by, say, placing the Stone on the Singapore River where it was first found, complete with all the digital bells and whistles of ancient Singapura.
But while the thought of immersing oneself in a 1960s political rally or looking over Sang Nila Utama’s shoulder as he discovers the mythical lion sounds intriguing, the technology is still developing.
NOT JUST A GIMMICK?
According to World VR Forum creative director Salar Shahna, who was also present at the Digimuse conference, the VR industry is only now slowly starting to make inroads into the mainstream. Technology has become cheaper and countries are slowly investing in VR, but it will take some time.
There’s also the issue of its image as a gimmick. “I hear many people say ‘I’ve tried VR and I know what it is”. But you don’t say, ‘I’ve seen a movie and I know what it is’,” he said.
But Shahna also pointed out the importance of museums and art centres getting into the game. “They can offer another level of experience that (film) festivals can’t offer you,” he said, citing the possibility of creating specific spaces for truly immersive VR experiences, rather than simply just sitting in one corner and putting on a headset.
For now, however, those curious about VR will simply have to settle for the simpler latter experience at NMS – like Mr Arul from Australia.
After my own encounter with the Jupiter statute, I saw the 80-year-old retiree, who was on holiday, fumbling with his headset to check out the State Hermitage Museum VR piece as well.
After he was done came the verdict: “It’s exciting. I had the feeling I was in a museum and made me want to get a close-up. If I wanted to get the feeling of visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, maybe I could get something like this and learn what’s in it right here in Singapore.”