Augmented Reality (AR)

What is Augmented Reality (AR)?

Augmented Reality (AR) layers digital information onto a physical environment, typically when viewed through a device such as a smart phone. An increasing number of museums are using this technology.

Image 1: Screenshot from Museum of London Streetmuseum

AR is often achieved using:

  • GPS (global position service) and
  • an image recognition process.

AR may also use:

  • cell tower triangulation to locate people;
  • a compass to tell what direction the device is pointing; and
  • motion detection.

What can AR do?

AR applications allow a user to view information in the form of text, pictures and video on their device in a specific location, or in connection with a specific object.

Why use AR?

AR offers museums the potential for:

  • presenting additional contextual information related to an object or place;
  • providing location-specific audio-visual material; and
  • superimposing historic views, reconstructions, or missing information on the user's view of a current site.

It has particular potential for education, both in its support for location-based history and also in visualization tools that allow users to see how something was or to view inside something (such as a mammal in a diorama).

Who is using AR?

  • The London Streetmuseum (pictured above) is an excellent project that overlays historic photos on current locations viewed through a device's camera. They have also developed an AR application that features Roman London.
  • The Pickering Museum Village offers an iPhone AR tour using Layar with photos, a map, descriptive information and videos.
  • The Royal Ontario Museum used an augmented reality application called ROM Ultimate Dinosaurs to bring their dinosaur exhibition to life. Using either their own smartphones or the iPads mounted throughout the exhibition, visitors could move the device along the dinosaur skeleton to see the creature in the flesh, as it would have looked when it was alive. Similarly, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's Skin and Bones application allows visitors exploring the Bone Hall to see the animal skeletons in the flesh and in living colour.
  • With the application Gamar, museum curators can create augmented reality games aimed at educating younger audiences and families, such as the award-winning game A Gift for Athena at the British Museum, which provides an interactive and informative way for children to explore the Parthenon gallery using Samsung tablets.
  • Chicago 0,0 is an augmented reality mobile application which superimposes photographs from the Chicago History Museum's collection over their corresponding locations through image recognition. (In prototype, not available for download yet).
  • The Canadian Museum for Human Rights' mobile application has a panorama feature which uses augmented reality to provide information about nearby Winnipeg landmarks from the perspective of the museum's Israel Asper Tower of Hope and the Indigenous Perspectives terrace.
  • GeoStoryteller makes use of photographs, documents and multimedia elements to create stories about places using augmented reality and geolocation. Their first application, created in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut of New York, was designed to teach students about German cultural heritage in New York City.
  • The Stedelijk Museum created ARtours, which employs a variety of multimedia content, including augmented reality features, to deliver six different guided tours of the museum.
  • ARworks is using augmented reality, iBeacons and QR codes to deliver interactive content at specific locations within museums. By walking within one metre of an iBeacon or by scanning a QR code, various content is sent to the visitor's tablet, including 3-D augmented reality models of objects.
  • Metaverses, created by four MFA students working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Media Lab, provides an augmented reality tour of parts of the museum's collection. The students created augmented reality using the free application Aurasma, which overlays various forms of media on top of real-life images.

What are the considerations?

Here are a few things to take into account when considering creating an AR application:

  • Is your audience likely to be interested in using such an application?
  • What devices are your audiences most likely to be using? (AR is platform-specific - you must create the application for a specific platform, such as iPhone/iPad, Android or Blackberry.)
  • What is your goal? (e.g. provide historic views, provide additional textual context, provide related images, provide video content, etc.)
  • What content do you already have to support such an application?
  • Can you afford to hire a developer who is familiar with developing AR content, or will staff be using an application intended to ease creation of AR content?
  • Have you taken into account the approval process for apps through the device's store (eg. iTunes)?
  • How stable is the content? You do not want to redevelop often and require frequent upgrades to the application. There will be required upgrades due to changes in the operating software on the device, which should be included in any developer's contract.

The platform and programming issue may be a significant one. There is currently no standard for AR. Layar has been used for many AR  applications, but in some circles there is also a push to create a standard platform.

In summary, AR  has received a lot of media attention in the last couple of years, and it has a lot of potential for museums, particular in location-specific contexts; AR  is also a great way to reuse content your museum already has in a new way. However, your museum needs to be aware of the issues associated with AR when considering this type of project.

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This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

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