DIGITAL AVATARS AS HUMANIZED MUSEUM GUIDES IN THE CONVERGENCE OF EXTENDED REALITY
AbstractThis article analyses the role of the Digital Avatars in the museum context. It takes an exploratory approach analyzing different interfaces to get a natural and humanized behave during the museum visit with digital content. The main concern is to achieve an intuitive way to interact with the avatar guide by just registering the natural behavior of visitors when they move around the room, look at the items or touch the virtual holograms with their fingers. With the intention to inspire a wider dialogue in the museum sector, this article provides a framework that can help museums to produce more natural and humanized visits, based on the design and implementation of a holographic guide for Hololens Glasses in the Almoina, the archaeological museum of Valencia (Spain). The results of the usability tests conducted to check the impact of the natural experience are presented and analyzed in this paper. On the design of this project, it was assumed the challenge of immersing visitors within content in a way that encouraged exploration to discover the hidden stories of this ancient city. Many big companies, like Facebook, Google and Nvidia are presenting their hyperrealist digital avatars able to speak different languages, prepared to be integrated in a large variety of applications. The avatars are ready to appear in smart phones and Extended Reality apps. In our study we conclude that, in a near future, the avatar solutions will converge in the shape of a cost-effective solution, that combines a smart phone with external AR glasses, to make possible the democratization of Museum 4.0 experiences.
Keywords: Museum, Digital Avatar, Extended Reality, Museum Guide, Natural,
During the last ten years we have experienced a revolution in the field of audio guides and information systems inside museums. These have gone from using analog audio recordings, which belonged to the museum, to the deployment of the users’ smartphones. The key for the development of these media guides is to provide the relevant content to the visitor just when is needed, mimicking the idea of a guide who accompanies visitors during the tour and answers their questions (Winesmith, 2017). As a progression towards the humanization of the experience with virtual guides, visual avatars are used as storytellers who facilitate content in a more affective and personal way, like real guides do in museums. Thanks to the last technological developments, it is possible to create innovative storytelling centered in the visitor experience (Murawski, 2018) in interaction with avatars and digital content.
Figure 1: Virtual avatar watched from the point of view of the visitor wearing the AR Hololens glasses.
A 3D virtual avatar is a computer representation of a human being, or an alter ego of a person, which is in the form of a three-dimensional model (Zhang & Yang, 2009). Avatars are normally used to humanize the virtual experiences, in video games and virtual tours. In those experiences’ gamers assume an identity, as an avatar, and interact with other users (Suh, Kim, & Suh, 2011). Currently many online communities are following the path that the virtual world “Second Life” started in 2003, where personal avatars play a central role in the way people represents themselves to communicate with other “players” (Kalning, 2011). Although “Second life” is irrelevant nowadays it paved the path to understand the Internet as a unique place to socialize with avatars where the main game is to communicate with other members and build stories.
Video games have deal with avatars for more than 30 years (Mäyrä, 2008), and some important questions rise to consider its use at the museum context: what happens with the similarity to the individuals or gamers? Some publications demonstrate that the more closely an avatar resembles its user, the more the user is likely to have positive attitudes (e.g., affection, connection, and passion) toward the avatar, and it is more able to performance an apparel product (Suh, Kim, & Suh, 2011).
Communication is a very important museum function, trying to improve relationships between objects and people (Witcomb, 2003, p. 127). Last technological developments from the Fourth Industrial Revolution are fueling museums practice when including Extended Reality (XR), Big Data (BD)and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Extended Reality (XR) is a broad term that incorporates Augmented Reality (AR), as the combination of digital data and information in a real environment, and Virtual Reality (VR) as an interactive and immersive experience generated by a computer that replicates an environment, real or imagined, and simulates physical presence to allow interaction. The challenge of the 4.0 revolution is to deal with Extended Reality and the use of Big data, a set of data whose size, complexity and speed of growth make it difficult to capture, manage and process using conventional technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI) can be incorporated to facilitate process.
As consequence, new methodologies for the presentation of contents are emerging, creating original and sensitive narratives that engage with the traditional practice of storytelling (Gillam, 2017), and facilitate a more immersive and intuitive interaction with subjects, ensuring smoother interaction with the virtual and real worlds (Manovich, 2005, pp. 146-147; Kipman, 2016; Weiser, 1991).
Human avatar representations can be divided in two trends: those very simple and cartoonish and those that try to copy exactly the look and expressions of real people. The market of VR social applications based in personal avatars are closer to the first type, with a growing ecosystem since the successful appearance of the Oculus Quest 2 VR glasses, supported by Facebook. This standalone device shows the enormous interest for avatars as a way for having a presence in social online meeting and experiences that go from watching a movie to visit virtual worlds and sharing all type of digital assets.
Simultaneously enterprises like Google and Nvidia are presenting for first time new hyperrealist 3D digital avatars prepared to speak different languages, planned to be integrated in a large variety of applications, from virtual desks in airports to attenders in websites. The most impressive advance of this prototypes in development is that some of them seems to avoid the “uncanny valley” effect. This is the undesirable effect that 3D human representations produce when they are close to mimic the real human, but not completely. Unfortunately, most of these technologies are still in beta and cannot be tested in real scenarios.
Our approach to solving the problem of human avatars specifically for the museum is different from these two, neither a simplified version nor a 3D model. It is based on video recordings of actors who play the role of a guide and historical character at the same time. On this is a way, the “uncanny valley” effect is prevented, although this format is less flexible to changes during production because all necessary lines in the story must be recorded in advance, including any reaction or bifurcation in the plot that may be necessary to respond to specific interactions with the visitor.
Related Research: The possibilities of Avatars in Museums
Museums have a wealth of information about the objects they keep, which must be organized and presented to appear attractive without overwhelming the visitor. (Falk, 2009). Narratives associated to those objects must be adapted to this new media (Wong, 2015), with the potential of unite people, and provoke dialogue with the aim of creating and transmitting knowledge and releasing passions (Parry, 2013). In fact, visitor’s experience depends on a mixture of multiple factors (Hooper-Greenhill, 2016; Bourdieu & Darbel, 1997), but if museums want to be culturally relevant in society, they need to take advantages of new technological resources (Witcom, 2016, pp. 580 -589) and play an active role to improve the experience of visiting the museum (Falk, 2009), finding strategies to rediscover heritage and reinvent its stories (Kenderdine, 2014). Thanks to digital media, and the last technological advances of the 4.0 age, museums have a new opportunity to communicate collections which could be aided by virtual human avatar. In this context, digital museum guides and avatars are being used to mediate experiences with heritage, both inside museums with Augmented Reality, and at the Web with Virtual Reality.
It is demonstrated that multimedia guides can contribute to a better understanding of the exposed contents (Eghbal-Azar, Merkt, Bahnmueller, & Schwan, 2015, pp. 133-142). They provide information but also engage the visitor in an interactive exchange that can lead to deeper understanding and promote excitement about content. Much of the presented technology in the museum context has been used to create individual experiences (Sharples, FitzGerald, Mulholland, & Jones, 2013). However, last technological developments with Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, together with Artificial Intelligence and Big data, can facilitate a social storytelling conducted by a virtual guide, like a mediator, a friend, or an expert, that explains contents. The challenge now is to design those experiences to be emotive, social, and natural, mimicking the human behave during the museum visit, facilitating a content-driven experience (Kefi & Pallud, 2011).
The TOURBOT project was an early experience, from 2001, where a simplistic humanized avatar robot was presented at the Hellenic Cosmos Cultural Centre in Athens. Users tele-controlled the robot from home, they could scan the works and it provided audio images and texts (Roussou, et al., 2001).
In 2009, it was difficult to interact with the avatars in the multi-user virtual worlds. An early experiment created data driven avatars that roamed in a digital museum. The research was focused on three main questions: the animation of avatars, the path planning and the collision detection among avatars technologically speaking (Wang, Meng, Yang, & Zhang, 2009). Other experiences proved that learning process in museums can be more complete thanks to the use of the avatars (Mu, Yang, & Zhang, 2009). In 2010 the Museum of Science of Boston used two virtual avatars to prove that the presence of a virtual realistic actor can increase engagement and attention of the user in the museum context (Swartout, et al., 2010).
A recent article published in 2018 compares different storytelling approaches for virtual guides by using featuring virtual humans in a digital immersive museum. Some of the results demonstrate that in terms of engagement and understanding of the content users found it easier to visit the gallery through the avatar’s explanations and helped to keep a deeper attention (Carrozzino, Colombo, TecchiaChiara, Evangelista, & Bergamasco, 2018).
The potential of virtual humans as storytellers can facilitate an affective narrative in virtual museum. A recent article analyses three different avatars that personify a curator, a guard, and a visitor. Some of the findings of this research remark that gender is an important factor when evaluating the degree of effectiveness of the VR experience (Sylaiou, Kasapakis, Gavalas, & Dzardanova, 2020).
Regarding the use of avatars inside galleries, the Museum of Celtic Heritage of Salzburgwith proposed in 2016 an AR application for handheld devices, like tablets and smartphones. A 3D virtual cartoon model of a Celt was used as guide to tells stories about the museum. The app used Wikitude’s Augmented Reality SDK with Image Recognition and 2D Tracking technology (Breuss-Schneeweis, 2016).
AR applications can also use smart glasses to recreate Augmented Reality experiences inside museums. They are of special interest in historical and archaeological museums since they are capable to reconstruct contexts. However, it can also be used to present holographic avatars that explain museums context as mediators. Recently few articles about this topic have been published. An interesting example is the experience designed for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This research is focused on the idea of reducing the number of human tour guides in museums and analyze technical issues to display contents and interact with digital data based on the immersion and presence theory, to be used with Head Mounted Displays like Hololens (Hammady, Ma, Strathern, & Mohamad, 2019). The results highlighted the importance of the mediating role of the guide and the opportunity to save economic resources with the avatars (Hammady, Ma, AL‑Kalha, & Strathearn, 2021).
The creation of a holographic avatar for the Almoina Museum
In 2018, our research group developed a holographic video avatar prototype prepared to guide visitors at the Almoina archaeological museum of Valencia (Spain). The experience was designed to help visitors on the discovering of the meaning of some cryptic ruins belonging to the Roman period when the city of “Valentia” was created. The prototype was built for the AR view-through glasses Hololens. The tour began with a mandatory introductory chapter of five minutes, where a holographic avatar named Cleia presented and explained the experience and how to interact with the holograms. Once the visitor learned how to operate, four interactive content chapters of five to ten minutes were accessible on the place, located in four important historical spots on the ground.
Figure 2: Holographic Production Schema.
The goals that directed this project were:
- To design and develop a functional prototype of an interactive human avatar as a virtual holographic presence in the museum.
- To decide what type of storytelling can meet the requirements of the for the Almoina archaeological museum. Since Almoina museum holds different archaeological findings dating from the Roman period to the Middle Ages, it is certainly difficult for a non-specialized visitor to discern between the times of the different ruins in such a complicated layout.
- To apply the principles of the Museology 4.0 that defend the use of technology to create more naturalized, interactive, immersive, intelligent, gamified, transmedia, and social experiences.
Methodology and production workflow
The design of the holographic experience had to be adjusted to meet the physical museography requirements. Those qualities have been gathered in the Thesis of Dr. A. Martí in a terminology named Museography 4.0. (Martí Testón, 2018) (Muñoz & Martí, 2018). Museography 4.0 are the set of techniques relative to the functioning of the museum adapted for our new digital era, using emerging technologies of the XXI century to reach a more natural, immersive, and intuitive integration of the digital data in the exhibition context.
The following production scheme was applied when implementing the project:
Figure 3: Production Scheme for the Almoina Project.
The production of a multimedia format for storytelling with the avatar
The experience starts when the visitor puts on the glasses in the main zone of the Roman ruins. The visitor can hear to Cleia calling to get closer. The life-size video image of the avatar appears in a precise spot in the room. Once the visitor comes closer enough the system triggers automatically the first chapter, where Cleia presents the experience and teaches how select the interactive objects -red Roman Standards and green coins- that allow to begin the tour. If the visitor does not active these two items, the system would loop to repeat each one until the visitor successfully complete the task. Once the introductory scene is done, Cleia disappears from the initial spot and several red Roman Standards appear in different places on the zone, each one marking a new scene to discover, with one main story told again by Cleia, and four coins floating on the space with extra information that can be activated in any order. Each one of these short stories were conducted by a male voice over a cinematic reconstruction of part of the ruins, during approximately 3-5 minutes. When the story ends, the Roman Standards and the coins that momentarily have been hidden, show up again, and visitors can replay any of them if they wish.
The challenge of Staging on the museum
The construction of Cleia as a flat avatar made from video feeds presented a big challenge to create a believable three-dimensional presence in front of the visitor. The solution was planned since the very beginning of the project: the avatar always stays at a minimum distance of two meters from the visitor and the plane of projection with the video is programmed to rotate in real time towards the person who wears the glasses. The hologram was also altered to make eye contact with Cleia depending on the height of the visitor.
Thanks to the tracking features of the Hololens glasses Cleia was programmed to appear in a specific spot of the roman area beyond the railings, which the audience cannot reach at less than two meters.
A young actress played the role of Clelia, the historic roman female character in charge of acting as the visitor guide. It was necessary to take more than thirty videos per scene to have all reactions and sentences that the avatar must show during the visit to respond interactively to the visitor requests.
Video shoot were produced on a chroma set in a small studio, while the Post-production was carried out with a compositing video editor to crop the video and create a video asset with the background transparent, prepared to be inserted into the application to become a hologram. The preservation of the transparency as an alpha channel was crucial to integrate 3D animated objects around Cleia in a realistic fashion.
To resolve the problem of the unprecise input with hand gestures of Hololens version one, it was decided to program an input taking just the position of the head to trigger the interactive red Roman Standard and green coins, respectively. The other common way for making selections was by voice commands, but this idea was rejected since the museum are noise places.
Figure 4: Videos of Cleia blended in the authoring tool with 3D objects arround in motion.
Figure 5: Animation of the interactive Roman Standards, activated by the visitor’s head.
Figure 6: Two moments of animations that rebuilt the Temple in the scene of the Sanctuary
Programming was developed with Unity video game engine. All the materials and assets such as photos, videos, music, 3D objects and animations were integrated to create the interactive scenes. After integrating all these assets and programming their “behavior”, the program was uploaded into the glasses to carry out the functional tests on the real space.
The reconstructions on the museum space were intentionally programmed to appear and disappear gradually, so that the visitor has time enough to view how the virtual buildings fit with the real ruin’s layout. In this sense, special materials were programmed to make objects appear like progressive dissolutions of matter in the space. This approach enhanced the magical aspect of the experience as if was almost a traveling back in time.
A video recording of the experience watched from the point of view of the visitor can be seen in at the following link:
Figure 7: Implementation of the Video Avatar inside Almoina Musuem with Hololens glasses
Integration and functionality tests and results
To check the feasibility of the application different tests were carried out during February of 2018. Three formal sessions were conducted. First, the development of two Integration tests to check the proper functioning of the program, developed with ten people. After a usability test was used with 20 people to check the validation of the first alpha version with the introductory chapter and the one called “Santuario” (Sanctuary). In addition, an observational study was applied. Finally, a functional alpha version was generated integrating all the pieces: the video clips of Cleia.
The observational study showed that users stood an average of 37 minutes using the application and 93% executed the training correctly. The 90% decided to interact first with the red Roman Standards, and just preferred to active the green coins first. Most of them stood in front of the holograms and did not move around them. Most of them tried to touch the holograms as a first reaction.
The users understood very well how to run the tutorial that explained how to activate the contents, pointing the head during two seconds to the interactive signals. Neither needed help, and they moved naturally around the room. Several of the users complained that there were large differences between the guide’s audio volume (Cleia) and the other narrator. Possibly, some of the dialogues can be improved, to make them shorter like open questions.
With the results of these usability tests the team was satisfied, they helped to verify that the proposed methodologies are functional, and that they meet the proposed requirements. The methodology based on AR video avatars is viable and has demonstrated it with these experiments.
Users highlighted the attractiveness of the application due to the novelty of the media. They also pointed out that it was very useful to understand the origins of the ruins and what they belonged to. Moreover, they highlighted the easiness to interact with the virtual guide, the Roman Standards and the coins.
Arguably, the main complaint of participants was that the field of view (FoV) of the device was too small (34 degrees diagonal). Hence, participants could see digital objects interacting with the real world while looking straight ahead, but, if they turned their head a little, digital objects disappeared or got cut off. It is important to reveal that users explained that once they were involved in the visit, forgot about the problem of the field of view, and got involved in the storytelling.
Some visitors also expressed their worries about the fatigue produced by the weight of the glasses. Moreover, they pointed out the difficulty of wearing them with other glasses.
Conclusions and future applications
The application is an example of a new type of multimedia production able to create interactive human avatars without the risks of the disturbing 3D “realistic” model representations. The combination of the avatar presented as guide and the creation of cinematic holographic movies that overlaps the real ruins with virtual content opens new opportunities for any kind of museum, creating experiences that can be called magical by the reaction of the testers.
For narrative it represents a new way to discover hidden treasures of the past in places, like archeological museums, where many times is difficult to value the remains.
The avatars are ready to appear in smart phones and Extended Reality apps. In a near future, the avatar solutions will converge in the shape of a cost-effective solution, that combines a smart phone with external AR glasses, to make possible the democratization of Museum 4.0 experiences, arising important questions for the future:
- How should an avatar of the XXI century behave in a museum?
- Should we be able to choose the appearance of the avatars to make a more direct identification with the personal cultural background?
- Or should the Museum establish a closed criterion of appearance and behavior in accordance with their Museology plan?
- Should museums bet for hyperreal avatars to perfectly substitute a human guide or just play with simple cartoon representations?
This research tested a novel way of approaching stories related to heritage, testing a type of interactivity that allows the personalization of content according to the profile of the visitor and their interests. The use of the AR avatar with audio and animated 3D recreations have helped to make the museum experience much more immersive, bringing the user closer to the feeling of taking a trip back in time.
Nevertheless, the introduction of Augmented Reality smart glasses in the museum context offers some challenges to be analyzed: In terms of production, the need of professional with hybrid profiles and the need for scientific 3D reconstructions will involve some additional media production costs. About design, it must be mentioned the dependency between the design of the interaction rules and the specific storytelling that need to be told. The model of exploitation must consider the high costs and maintenance of devices. It can be concluded that specific methodologies are feasible to be used by current museums in a near future, when the AR glasses become affordable by small institutions. In this regard, companies like the Korean Nreal are beginning to sell consumer ready AR glasses much cheaper than the original Hololens, paving the future for more competitive market in this field (Robertson, 2020).
In future research is intended to reprogram the application to take the advantages of the second version of Hololens that appeared in 2020, regarding the wider field of view and the hand and eyes tracking capabilities of the device.
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