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As in most other aspects of life, museums have integrated technology into the overall experience for visitors. There are about 55,000 museums on this planet, and here are some ways that museums are changing the way we visit museums and, ultimately, how we see the world.


Artificial Intelligence (AI) 

AI can help with all sorts of data acquisition and interpretation, so it’s no surprise that it can help visitors plan their paths through museums. Algorithms can track visitors’ movements in the museum and show how to efficiently arrange objects on display to better facilitate visitors’ pathways through the exhibits. AI can reveal which exhibits interest visitors the most, where they spend the most time, and how to maximize the time visitors spend in the museum.


Robots & Museum Visitors

In 2018, “Pepper”, a humanoid robot was developed by the Smithsonian Institution. Six of these robots occupy Smithsonian museums (the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Smithsonian Castle) with the purpose of answering visitors’ questions and telling stories using voice, gestures, and an interactive touch screen. Visitors interact well with Pepper, and according to the New York Times, the robots will even pose for selfies. The Smithsonian plans to introduce more “Peppers” to other museum locations in the future.


Immersive Technology: Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality

The most obvious forms of new technologies that will be infiltrating museums are virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or a combination of both. VR and AR technology is already popular and is being incorporated into museum exhibitions.


Augmented Reality (AR) 

AR is an excellent tool for museums interested in bridging the gap between the digital and real, displaying landscapes, data, and animations in real time. AR layers context onto an interface that the visitor can see and understand. It blends two different realms, the real, physical world that is seen with the eyes and the world as seen on phone devices. Museums are using AR for everything from wayfinding to bringing objects to life to creating entirely new digital artworks.


On a similar note, Virtual Reality (VR) has advanced in the past five years to a much lower cost than typically assumed. VR can transport guests to another world, real or imaginary, not only to learn about, but also visually experience, another time or place in history.


Exhibits don’t have to stand alone, fixed in space, or untouchable; technology can allow us to make interactive, touchable and programmable demonstrations. A visitor’s hand movements, steps, touch, and even voice can trigger a full audio-visual experience that will provide information and tell a narrative.


Virtual Museum Guides —“Virtual Agents” (VA)

The vast number of objects on exhibit is often overwhelming and can cause visitors to miss artwork or entire exhibitions that are best suited to their personal preferences. Museums have engaged volunteers as docents to lead tours of their exhibits since the 1890s. But the high cost of employee time to train and supervise docents can be problematic.  Some museums, as well as cultural and natural heritage sites, are experimenting with VA in the form of virtual guides for exhibitions and heritage destinations. The main advantages of virtual agents are their ability to understand natural language and present answers to questions from visitors. They can be deployed in both real and virtual environments to engage visitors and deliver a comprehensive learning experience.


Smartphone Applications

It is 65 years since the first museum audio guide was introduced in museums. Since then, they have evolved to become an integral part of the museum experience, augmenting the visit with information that can give the visitor a deeper appreciation of an artwork or historic context and bring subjects to life through experiential storytelling. However, audio guides that museums rent out may be a thing of the past. With nearly every guest carrying a smartphone in their pocket, apps are being (and have been) developed that act as guides, visual aids, and additional resources for the curious visitor.


As non-profit organizations, museums are always concerned with generating enough funding to keep their doors open. Museum shops and museum memberships have been important revenue streams for decades. Since people can purchase anything they want on their phones at any time, museums can focus on visitors’ experiences while they are in the museum and let technology continue their shopping after they leave. Likewise, museum memberships are nearly totally online now. Smartphones can be used to check membership benefits, and anything else, while visitors are at the museum, travelling, or at home.


Technology can greatly improve museum experiences, and curators are discovering new applications every day.