What the British Museum's first VR exhibit means for future school trips

Visitors can travel to the Bronze Age with a Samsung Gear VR
The British Museum's first VR exhibit

Getting families and school kids interested in Bronze Age bracelets and ceremonial weapons is not easy. Teachers struggle - it's now on the curriculum in the UK. Parents struggle. Even the British Museum struggles. Which is why Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae, education managers at the BM's Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, chose the Bronze Age for the museum's first virtual reality exhibit taking place this weekend, 8 - 9 August.

"At the very early stage of developing this experience, Juno and I decided that to really explore the potential of this technology, our virtual environment should tackle one of the museum's more complex subjects for children to understand, one many children struggle to engage with," said Edwards.

"Working with schools and families, we know that prehistory is a really difficult subject for these groups. It's difficult for teachers to teach and it's difficult for families to explore together. So we picked the Bronze Age."

Really, really immersed in history

The pilot experience is named the Virtual Reality Weekend and unlike David Attenborough's First Life VR exhibit at the Natural History Museum, also in collaboration with Samsung, it's free. That said, unlike the NHM's set-up of sixty headsets, it's also a more modest start.

The experience includes five Gear VR headsets, two Note tablets and an immersive dome with an interactive screen. All three stations display a prehistoric roundhouse environment housing 3D scans of objects in the museum's European Bronze Age collection, which have various interpretations as to how they are used.

Read this: Explained - how does VR actually work?

The three objects are interlinked Sussex Loop bracelets which might have been worn on the arm or attached to clothes; a blunt, probably ceremonial Dirk blade (1450 - 1300 BC) from Norfolk and Woolaston Gold hoops, found in Gloucestershire, which were cut in size to be used as a child's bracelet or adult earrings.

In short, this stuff is really old - the type of object you might waltz past if you're a thirteen year old on a school trip. Here's where VR can help.

"We know that there's very rich potential for children and young people - objects from this period are really fascinating," continued Edwards. "They're mysterious, they're loaded with ideas about prestige, power, life and death, all executed with incredible craftsmanship.

"By exploring these objects in their original context, children will better understand our full collections. We hope that after wearing a Gear VR headset or exploring the objects in an immersive dome, families will then visit our Bronze Age gallery equipped with the skills and knowledge better to understand the collection that is on display."

Five minutes in a prehistoric house

We were able to have a play with the virtual environment created for Samsung's mobile VR headset- the immersive dome is yet to be installed ahead of this weekend. It's a quick but extremely accessible VR demo.

Designed by Soluis Heritage and using 3D scans from the British Museum and UCL MicroPasts project, the app places you in the middle of a settlement of CG prehistoric roundhouses. Using the Gear VR's touch panel, you swipe forward and backward to move into and around one of the roundhouses, selecting the scanned objects by looking at them and tapping once. The museum's curator of the European Bronze Age collection, Dr Neil Wilkin, narrates in your ear via headphones (make sure the volume is up if it's noisy), and you can view the objects from different angles as you tilt and move your head.

Read this: BBC Taster is giving away £100K to VR and AR projects

It's interesting to see the objects in their original setting and the team plans to tweak the lighting at the weekend to illustrate how houses were aligned with the sun. In the virtual roundhouse, a CG Bronze Age family might have helped to really show how these ornaments might have been used though. If it's your first play with VR, it'll be a fun one but it is a very short demo and being mobile VR, it's not quite as powerful as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive at tricking you into thinking you are really there.

Still, for teenagers - the Gear VR portion is restricted to children aged 13 and up - having a nosy around a prehistoric settlement in VR will feel much more like entertaining education (i.e. a video game) than being left to use their imagination with only the objects, maybe an audioguide, to work with.

And the project has got the museum excited. "I've just spent ten minutes in the Bronze Age and it was just totally wonderful, if slightly discombobulating," said Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum. "Having seen these things in the virtual reality experience, then actually going to see these objects themselves is going to be very, very exciting. As a museum of the world, for the world, we must be accessible to the world and this kind of technology is what makes it possible."

Samsung is invading a museum near you

This is all really just the beginning, we're probably still in virtual reality's prehistory. For the British Museum - this autumn it will trial the VR experience using the Discovery Centre's Schools Programme and Edwards notes that the team will be taking feedback from the VR Weekend into future development of virtual reality exhibits for visitors. And for Samsung which wants to partner with institutions in London and elsewhere then let them get on with deciding what to do with virtual reality.

Read this: Why virtual reality won't fail this time

Andy Griffiths, president of Samsung Electronics UK and Ireland, told Wareable that there are "a huge list of topics that could be covered by VR and help to bring it to life and engage people in a new way."

"From an educationalist point of view, it's key that they pick the topics. I think it's very brave and shows the potential of VR to bring difficult areas to life in a new way that illustrates how interesting they truly are."

The First Life experience runs until September at the Natural History Museum and though Samsung hasn't announced anything, it's clear that it wants more museums to put its tech to good use. "We work with a number of institutions around London," said Griffiths. "The interesting thing for us is finding partners like the BM who are really keen to push the boundaries of technology, particularly for the under 25s group. I hope people see the start of the potential for how VR can illustrate a subject much more dramatically and really give you the feeling that you're there."

Eventually Griffiths says that we will see Gear VR headsets in schools but he notes that it's still "early days" and the content base for this hardware will need to increase first. Samsung has previously worked with the museum to overlay augmented reality images onto the Parthenon sculptures using Samsung tablets and Griffiths sees AR and VR as simply different tools that can be selected depending on the project and the size of interested groups.

"Last year, that was a different experience, different numbers of people you can reach," he said. "The great thing is we've got more and more tools to bring this brilliant museum to life."

So VR headsets aren't just about fast-paced space shooters or quirky puzzle games. This cutting edge tech is also a very nice fit for making historic objects more exciting and approachable and the British Museum is rightly ushering in the future to help young people connect with the past. The experience gives visitors and schoolchildren that all important context in a truly fresh way - if you haven't tried VR yet, it'll be a real nerdy thrill in more ways than one.

The British Museum's Virtual Reality Weekend is free, taking place in the Great Court and it's open from 11am to 4pm on the 8 and 9 August.

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