Ever since the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum introduced its beloved electric map in 1939, the museum world has sought to engage future generations with technological bells and whistles.
Today—though the approach is not without its detractors—museums have turned to technology as an increasingly essential tool in the battle for hearts, minds, and attention spans. Museums like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History are experimenting with virtual tours and immersive, interactive exhibits. These innovations can help draw more bodies through their doors, fulfill their educational missions, and broaden their reach to audiences who might never have the chance to see their exhibits in person.
“We average 1.8 million visitors here every year, but there are countless more interested in our story who will never make it to Hawaii in their lifetimes,” says Scott Pawlowski, the National Park Service’s (NPS) chief of cultural and natural resources for the WWII Valor in the Pacific Monument at Pearl Harbor.
Pawlowski is particularly enthused about the introduction of new virtual reality (VR) technology features at Pearl Harbor and how they will enhance the experience of onsite and remote visitors. On December 7, 2016—the 75th anniversary of the infamous attack—NPS unveiled three new features in the new “Pearl Harbor VR Tour” app (available on iPhone and Google Play). These show an accurate account of the bombing of Battleship Row, a virtual walking tour along the decks of the pre-attack USS Arizona, and a detailed journey through today’s undersea memorial. With this technology, aging military veterans in Miami or San Diego will have just as much opportunity as schoolchildren in Topeka or Tokyo to experience the historically significant site.
“I conceptualized this project three years ago, so it’s really been my baby,” says Pawlowski, who has worked with NPS in Honolulu since 2006. “Of course, I couldn’t make it happen alone: Our partners have created this VR experience that is really phenomenal.”
Those partners include the nonprofit Pacific Historic Parks (PHP) and the Omaha, Nebraska–based architecture/engineering firm HDR, which designed and packaged the app’s new features. “This project was an exciting opportunity to look at our applied-technologies practice in a new light,” said Raj Prasad, HDR’s CTO, last December. “It demonstrates what’s possible by combining information management with 3D modeling and virtual reality.”
Reaching Future Generations
Former HDR engineer and retired U.S. Navy Captain Neil Sheehan is chairman of the board at PHP, which supports the operation of five historic NPS sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including Pearl Harbor. In recent years, he and fellow board members had noticed how many young visitors to the memorial were paying more attention to their iPhones than to the solemn, compelling history all around them.
“Seeing how younger generations today receive and send information, and are just immersed in technology, did impact our thinking,” explains Sheehan, who is also CEO of the Sheehan Group-Pacific, an environmental consulting firm he started in 2014 in Kailua, Hawaii. “PHP was one of the first parks to bring VR into its educational and experiential portfolio, and we know this program will continue to evolve.”
Those involved in the new Pearl Harbor digital portal see the potential to do more with it. “At the moment, it has more of a ‘wow’ factor than educational content, so I would rate it at a 7 on a scale of 10,” concedes Tom Gerrish, PHP’s director of information and digital technology, and former IT director for the State of Hawaii’s Department of Education. “The VR market is continuously changing, though, so we have learned that building in flexibility to make modifications and additions is crucial to the overall success of our VR app.”
Sheehan also sees room for improvement. “The VR experience has been enjoyable, but we need to better tie it into our mission: education, both as an educational tool itself, but also as a source of revenue that could then be reinvested into our educational programs,” he says.
The new VR interface at Pearl Harbor is already showing some success, attracting 20 to 30 viewers per day in 2017. Tourists pay $4.99 for a 10-minute tour that allows them to walk the decks of the great battleship and even to virtually hold historical artifacts in their hands.
More features are being added to the app this spring, and the VR tour will continue to be a work in progress. As HDR describes it, users eventually will be able to access hundreds of oral histories, interactive maps, and relics—some of which were warehoused and unseen by anyone.
A Mission of Preservation, Expanded
The digital-portal initiative began three years ago to create one master digital data set for historical preservation purposes, such as detecting and analyzing changes to the physical artifacts: monitoring things like the 101-year-old USS Arizona’s rate of physical degradation, oxygen levels on different decks, and even the growth of coral on its submerged surfaces.
In August 2016, a strategic-projects team from Autodesk deployed an auto-coiling, remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to collect SONAR and LiDAR data from the ship over multiple dives. The information was then fed into Autodesk ReCap to create several models from each mission that NPS scientists could overlay and study for changes. Then the data went through ReMake to prepare for 3D printing.
Along the way, NPS realized that this new data could be repurposed to engage the public in a viscerally compelling way, so Autodesk 3ds Max and Stingray were used to animate and create and interactive VR experience. “It has opened up an incredible opportunity for us, one that I am not quite sure we are prepared to handle at that moment,” Pawlowski says. “Part of my mission has always been about engaging the public, so I would really like to see this grow in sophistication. And VR is where we’re all headed now. We will just need more partners to realize this potential.”
For now, NPS and its partners still have more to learn about this virtual terrain, and its real-life corollaries, as they push forward. “One thing we realized soon after we started renting the VR headsets is that we need to provide chairs for the users,” recalls an amused Pawlowski. “Otherwise, they were bumping into walls and each other, so we had to set aside a special viewing area, too.”