Anyone who has wanted to see the Great Wall of China, or the Mona Lisa, or ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico, but who hasn’t been able to due to money or time, can understand the benefits of virtual reality as a learning tool. This week’s roundup showcases four projects—some VR, some not—that give people access to places and experiences they normally wouldn’t get to be exposed to, perhaps teaching them a thing or two in the process.
Google Expeditions is a free, school-based virtual reality platform that hosts “virtual field trips” to locations around the world. Directed by their teacher, students can tour places like Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef, and even Mars by donning a Google Cardboard headset. The program travels to schools in several countries and provides all equipment needed to run the experience: smartphones, a tablet for the teacher to direct the tour, a router that allows Expeditions to run without an Internet connection, and Google Cardboard viewers or Mattel View-Masters that turn phones into virtual-reality headsets. Google’s goal is to reach as many students as possible, with the hope that by immersing them in new experiences, they might learn something.
Another initiative by Google, the Google Cultural Institute, invites viewers to explore art exhibits, historical moments, and world heritage sites in a series of online galleries. Google has collected hundreds of images from museums and archives around the world, and it showcases them alongside interactive tours of some of the locations. The resulting experience is an online archive of human culture—from Mont Blanc to international street art.
Google isn’t the only company making culture accessible online. The Lost Palace Project injects new life into Whitehall Palace, the main residence of the English monarchs in London from 1530 until 1698. Last fall, Historic Royal Palaces—the charity that oversees the upkeep of several palaces in England—held a competition challenging digital creatives to propose new ways to tell the story of Whitehall Palace. Proposals included a collaborative storytelling game, a series of theatrical reenactments, and an object that mimics the pulse of King Charles I’s heart—guests carry it as they wander through the Palace, and they feel it stop in the execution chamber. Designers Chomko & Rosier and theater makers Uninvited Guests were chosen to collaborate on a new experience based on these prototypes, to be launched in summer 2016.
Reload Studios and Woofbert VR have collaborated to produce a virtual tour of the Courtauld Gallery in London. The experience gives access to works from Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Author Neil Gaiman narrates. This is the first of many VR tours Woofbert hopes to create of museums and galleries. Cofounder and CEO Elizabeth L. Reede explains what differentiates her company’s apps from existing online galleries: “Every element of the gallery is designed: the height off the floor, the spacing among the paintings; at MoMA there are 15 shades of MoMA white.” Such attention to detail creates an experience strikingly similar to actually being there.