Barbara Maxwell, 79, leaning on a cane and wearing a cutting-edge HTC Vive virtual reality headset, stared with rapt attention in the general direction of a blank wall.
"I hear the sea!" she said to no one in particular. Then, looking off to her right, she met a blue whale face to face.
"Gosh, I'll say he's close!” she murmured. “He winked at me.”
Maxwell, of Fairmount, a volunteer at the Franklin Institute, was there to help staffers practice introducing visitors to a new virtual reality experience called the Holodeck, where they can try out the latest in immersive and mindblowing VR technology, like the Vive and Oculus Rift.
It’s part of a push into virtual reality across the museum, which plans to distribute thousands of Google Cardboard VR headsets and to place pop-up VR stations in the exhibits Your Brain, the Giant Heart, and Space Command to showcase relevant content, like brain surgery or tours of the International Space Station.
Franklin Institute staffers believe it to be the most extensive VR experience in any museum in the world. It reflects a broader investment in technology for the museum, which hired its first chief digital officer, Susan Poulton, last year and next week will launch an expansive mobile app. The "geo-fenced" app knows to toggle between an on-site mode, with features like an interactive museum map with turn-by-turn navigation (guided by 250 Bluetooth-enabled beacons), and an off-site version where viewers can access science content, including a library of curated VR science videos, from anywhere.
“The first public display of television was here at the Franklin Institute in the 1930s,” said Larry Dubinski, the museum's president. “So that notion of making the latest and greatest technology accessible continues with this.”
Right now, Poulton believes VR is the latest and greatest. Google Cardboard, a low-cost viewing device at $15, first put it within reach of the masses, and this summer, long-awaited Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR headsets finally shipped to consumers (at least those willing to pay a few thousand dollars for an at-home VR set-up).
The technology has been trickling into the museum world in various ways. Some, like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, have partnered with Google to offer virtual tours via the Cardboard viewer to visitors anywhere in the world. Others have incorporated it into exhibits: The British Museum has a technology hub including VR capabilities, and the Newseum in Washington is incorporating it into exhibits, including one on refugees that opens in November.
At the Franklin Institute, which will officially launch its VR initiative Tuesday, visitors will get the chance to explore immersive content such as a walk around the ocean floor, an encounter with a blue whale, and a three-dimensional painting session with TiltBrush, a dazzling VR app that allows users to build layers of color all around them.
On one level, it's just cool to see. On another, it's meant to serve as a model for institutions around the world, Poulton said.
"It’s demonstrating that museums can be on the forefront of evolving technology instead of waiting for those technologies to play out. Museums are not traditionally seen as at the bleeding edge of new technology -- they're seen as these dusty old places -- but that’s an important evolution museums have to go through. This is an important exercise in the future of museums."
The VR initiative represents an initial investment of about $500,000, which is modest by museum standards, and much of the content will be based in pop-up viewing stations.
“We’re looking to demonstrate that this doesn’t have to be an all-in, multimillion dollar experience," Poulton said. But, she added, museums need to be more nimble, and to think about developing projects over months, not years.
That's particularly crucial in showing technology, which is evolving quickly. Poulton hopes to bring in even more cutting-edge systems; she's trying to obtain a Microsoft HoloLens, a VR headset that’s still in development. And she wants to be ready to pivot to whatever's next. That could be augmented reality or "mixed reality," a technology that would bring the three-dimensional immediacy of VR into experiences laid over the real world.
Augmented reality may well be the next step in the Franklin Institute's digital evolution.
"Pokemon Go definitely catapulted augmented reality into the public realm," Poulton said. Before, the general public wasn't used to walking around, holding up their phone as a filter to the world around them. "Now, it’s a behavior a lot more people are familiar with, and comfortable with."
For now, the museum is working to expand its own VR library, which includes content from partners like NASA and Surgical Theater, which created abbreviated versions of content designed for physician training. Poulton also hopes to become a training hub for VR filmmakers and to partner with them to generate more content. So far, she's worked on one VR film, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: The video takes viewers on a dive off the research vessel EV Nautilus to a depth of 600 feet below the ocean surface.
"Our goal is to educate and inspire," Dubinski said. "When you look at virtual reality, what a great way to do that."