If you wanted to, you could visit some of the world’s greatest museums without ever leaving your couch. You can take a tour of the Louvre, explore the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, or visit an entire collection of Dutch and Flemish masters that only exist together in digital form in the virtual Kremer museum. If you’re wearing a VR headset, it’s almost like being there.
These headsets make virtual surroundings seem extraordinarily realistic. It can make the wearer feel as if they are physically stepping off a ledge or riding a rollercoaster, even if those actions are only shown on screen. But can VR headsets really convey the full experience of being at a museum exhibit?
Researchers in Italy and Spain designed an experiment to find out how people respond emotionally to being in a virtual museum compared to a real museum. They took electroencephalographic (EEG) and electrocardiographic (ECG) measurements of a few dozen volunteers while they visited a museum exhibit. Half of the participants attended the 2016 exhibit “Départ-Arrivée” by artist Christian Boltanski at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern in Valencia. The other half experienced a detailed reconstruction of the same exhibit entirely through a virtual reality headset, while walking around an empty room.
The researchers noticed that physiological measurements they took, together with survey questions, did not show much of a difference between people who visited the virtual museum or the real exhibit. If anything, visitors thought that the virtual museum was more exciting – but that could have been caused by the novelty of the virtual reality experience. In their paper, the researchers also suggested that there could be a “sense of eeriness” to the experience of being in a virtual room, which could affect the participants’ emotions. Still, despite these caveats, it looks like VR can capture at least some of the emotional experience of an exhibit.
But the overall experience of visiting a museum is about more than being in the space and looking around. For many people it’s a fun day off, a holiday activity, or an afternoon spent with friends. Those things all contribute to making a visit to the museum memorable — and that full experience is difficult to translate to virtual reality. If you have a chance, go see a real exhibit, but if there is somewhere you’re unable to visit, high quality VR could make for a decent substitute.