Virtual tour of museums has been around for a while, but it is far from being widespread and popular, which I found it is a pity because it can really benefit a lot of people if we do it right. It is also a perfect category for the recent hottest tech – VR to implement. After browsing some virtual tour project of museums, I found some common issues and drawbacks and a few shining points. As a UX designer, I would like to try on analyzing these projects from a user experience perspective. Below are the key factors I found that matter the most for a good experience of virtual/VR tour of museums.
(Typical setting of virtual tour: map, arrow, controller)
To clarify, a virtual tour is a simulation of an existing location, often composed of a sequence of videos or still images that are panorama. If it is still images, users often have the control of the pace and location where they “stand” and look at, the drawbacks are the scene is static and most of the projects are difficult-to-control. If it is video, then the location will be filmed at a walking pace while moving continuously from one point to another, where users have to follow the sequence and won’t have free control.
Virtual reality tours are the virtual tours that can be viewed and experienced by a VR viewer (headset). They are more immersive and have different controllers compared with viewing on a computer, tablet or phone, depending on which headset or app users use.
3D vs 2D
There are two ways these virtual tours present the work in the museum – 2D photos or 3D model.
The most common way is using 2D still photos where users can only see the work from a certain angle, which presents the same scene with the physical museum but the experience is incomplete, such as the one from Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History.
(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)
While some project use 3D model to rebuild a virtual museum, where each object is independent, so users can select, zoom in, and rotate to observe closely, such as the project of Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam.
(3D Virtual Tour – Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam)
From the user experience perspective, the experience of 3D is much better than the 2D one, because users can interact with objects. It also has the advantage of better storytelling, since the narrative or commentary can pair with each object, and be presented only when users select the object. Sketchfab, a 3D models platform, also has some exquisite 3D models in different categories including one for cultural heritage & history.
User-control and Interaction
Another issue I found when experiencing the virtual tours is the awkward user-control.
In the most common 2D virtual tour, users can only stand in one location at a scene. The only interactions are rotating the viewing angle and zoom in/out. Since users can’t move horizontally, they can’t see the objects placed in the longest distance clearly. It means what users can see in the virtual tour is partial. The only movement users can take is to move the next scene by clicking the “large arrow” on the ground where the transition isn’t smooth and continuous either. I think the poor performace of user interaction is the most important reason why the virtual tours are not real enough so far.
Narrative and Commentary
The accessibility and convenience of narrative or commentary should be the advantage of a virtual tour because users already have a device anyway. However, I can’t find the well-presented narrative or commentary in most of the cases. This is tied to the issues of 2D photos which can’t separate the objects within it.
For cultural heritage like the work in museums, the stories behind them are too important to neglect. On the app or website of Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), there are great introductions and audio commentary for each work. While in its virtual tour, the narratives are still missing. Since this kind of narrative and commentary resources is already there, I would say adding them to the virtual tour should be the next step to improve the experience.
(App of The Met)
Searchability and Shareability
Other features that should be the advantages of the digital tour while missing are the searchability and shareability. When people are consuming information, search and share are the two vital parts of their behaviors. (Wilson, T. D., 2000). One happens at the beginning (of information behavior), and one happens in the end.
In the physical museum, people use a map to search and locate the information they want, and they take photos or write notes to share with others. While in the virtual tour, the map (often located on the top right corner of view) is majorly for switching location. There is no search bar or menu as other digital products, and the map is not listing enough details for users to easily locate the things they want.
(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)
In terms of the shareability, if users experience the tours on the computer, tablet or phone, they may be able to take screenshots, although it is not convenient and personalized. If they watch with a VR headset, then there is no way for them to keep a record and share with others. Without the shareability, the virtual tours just lost the free yet powerful marketing opportunities – word-of-mouth.
I believe the virtual tours has great potential because it makes the best work and cultural heritage of the world more accessible to anyone. It has unique advantages compared with physical tour while there are still some gaps it needs to catch with the experience of the physical tour. Hopefully, it will happen soon as the evolvement of virtual reality and 3D modeling.
 Dalbello, M. (2009). “Digital cultural heritage: concepts, projects, and emerging constructions of heritage,” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA Conference, 25-30 May, 2009
 Wilson, T. D. (2000). “Human information behavior.” InformingScience3(2): 49–56. http://ptarpp2.uitm.edu.my/ptarpprack/silibus/is772/HumanInfoBehavior.pdf.
 Virtual tour, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_tour
 How VR Is Changing UX: From Prototyping To Device Design https://uxplanet.org/how-vr-is-changing-ux-from-prototyping-to-device-design-a75e6b45e5f8
 Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History http://naturalhistory.si.edu/VT3/NMNH/z_NMNH-016.html
 First 3D Virtual Museum with 3D scans of ancient relics – Ancient sculptures of Vietnam, http://vr3d.vn/trienlam/virtual-3d-museum-ancient-sculptures-of-vietnam