Donning a VR headset to visit the Worcester Art Museum

A digitized version of the Worcester Art Museum's Renaissance Court, with its Roman mosaic floor.
A digitized version of the Worcester Art Museum's Renaissance Court, with its Roman mosaic floor.

Hard-core gamers already know about the Oculus Rift, an immersive virtual reality headset that collected almost $2.5 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. (The California company has also raised millions more from Boston-based Spark Capital and Matrix Partners.)

photo (25)But if you’re not enthralled by the idea of donning a headset to dive into “Call of Duty” or “Assassin’s Creed,” Becker College student Scott Tongue may have a more appealing use for the Rift. He’s building a digital version of the Worcester Art Museum.

The project began last year as a class project that lost momentum, Tongue says. So he took it over, working in collaboration with Janet Tremblay, an artist and animator who also works at the museum.

I got a chance to check it out last Friday, at the MassDigi Game Challenge.

“Did you just eat lunch?” Tongue asked me. I had. “Some people get a little nauseous,” he said. That didn’t dissuade your intrepid blogger.

I strapped on the headset, which has two screens — one for each eye — that create a stereoscopic effect. Foam around the headset blocked out all of my peripheral vision. Suddenly I was standing on a mezzanine, overlooking the art museum’s main atrium (above). I had a simple directional controller in one hand that would let me walk around, including traveling up and down staircases. When I turned my head, my view of the museum shifted so that I could look up to the vaulted ceiling or down to see the Roman mosaic on the floor. If I approached an artwork, I could read the informational plaque on the wall. It wasn’t quite like being able to inspect a Winslow Homer painting on the wall of the actual museum — but it was lot more impressive than simply clicking through pages on a website. (Also: I did not lose my lunch.)

Tongue told me that up to 64 people can visit the virtual WAM at the same time. He built it using software from Unreal Engine and Maya. He’s planning to add audio, so that a guide will be able to lead a tour inside his digital museum. Imagine an art history teacher taking her class on an afternoon field trip to the Louvre or the Met, using Rift headsets…

Tongue’s faculty advisor on the project, Terrasa Ulm, tells me she’s talking with other museums about potentially getting involved with the project. She envisions all sorts of museums — not just art, but history and science museums, too — pooling their collections to create virtual exhibits that you could experience via Rift.

After graduating from Becker College this spring, Tongue plans to head to grad school, where he’ll focus on simulation and educational games. His mission: “I want to rebuild ancient Roman and Egyptian temples, or create a model of International Space Station, so school kids can go in and see what it’s like, and have the experience of being there.”

That, I think, is a fair bit cooler than “Call of Duty.”

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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