Artists are usually ahead of the rest of society when it comes to understanding the social implications of new technologies, so what lessons does the art and culture sector have for brands when it comes to creating experiences that matter? Ema O’Donovan, strategist, researcher and product manager, Manifesto, explains:
We are in a transitional phase in the history of learning and places of learning. Converging technologies, like VR, AR and IoT are finally delivering on the promise of immersive, remote experiences. These allow the decentralisation of cultural institutions and remote involvement. A fairly lo-fi example is Google’s Museum Views, which offers a Street-View style look inside famous cultural attractions around the world, but full VR tours of museums and galleries are increasingly available as the accessibility of VR gear improves. Apps like Boulevard offer interactive tours of a number of museums and galleries, including one for the British Museum.
At the same time, technology is also allowing visitors to museums and galleries to engage with art and culture in previously unimagined ways, bringing new depth to cultural experiences and new reasons to make an in-person visit. In 2017, the digital artist Alex Mayhew worked with the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto to create an AR installation called ReBlink which reimagined existing works, transporting their subjects into the modern world, with all the technological trappings it entails. Earlier this year, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida unveiled Dali Lives, using artificial intelligence to create an interactive video representation of the technologically-savvy master for visitors to play with.
Many brands are experimenting with these technologies, but are struggling to make the shift from a product-focused approach to a purely experiential one. AR recreations of trainers have an initial wow factor but experientially they’re a poor second to handling them in-store. Brands like Nike might do better by making more of their cultural significance. Uber’s recent sponsorship activation featuring a VR tour of Old Trafford for Indian Manchester United fans feels like a step in the right direction, but the connection to the Uber brand is tenuous.
Experiences which take you out of everyday life can improve wellbeing
Research from Art Fund found that 53% of the UK adults surveyed said that they had recently felt some level of anxiety and that 56% of people who visit art galleries regularly do so to ‘get away’ from their daily routines. Overall, people who “regularly visit museums and galleries report a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives than those who have never visited – as well as a greater sense of their lives and what they do being worthwhile.”
For those struggling to cope with the pressures of modern life, which seems to be most of us, finding escape from the constant barrage of stimulus, manufactured needs and technological nags can be a profound and transformative experience. There has been some hand wringing by marketers over the fact that VR experiences can be isolating at a live event, but why not rather see this time dedicated to a sole participant as a feature?
Beer brand Michelob Ultra cottoned on to this health-and-wellness trend with their sunset mass meditation experience at SXSW this year.
Synthesised realities change our relationships with objects and places
The inaugural exhibition at the new Amos Rex gallery in Helsinki, Finland was created by Tokyo-based art collective teamLab. With the title Massless, the exhibition featured large-scale, interactive digital installations that made stunning use of the gallery’s unusual architecture. The effect was an immediate transformation of the old Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace) buildings and square from a disused architectural curiosity into a multidisciplinary event venue.
Some of the skeletons on display in the Bone Hall of Washington D.C’s Smithsonian Museum have been there since 1881, but it’s only since the launch of the Skin and Bones app that visitors have been able to see how the specimens would have looked and moved when they were alive. In an example of genuinely augmented reality, the experience now provides vastly more information to visitors, helping them place what they’re seeing in context.
The combination of physical and digital can be used to stunning effect, if we can avoid the temptation to merely overlay digital objects and characters onto any old real-world setting. If we’re smart about using the features of the physical world, augmenting them with digital technology to reveal previously hidden aspects, or allowing people to see them in a new way, we can profoundly shift the meaning they carry.
Activations like Purina’s ‘Up to Mischief’, in which cat food brand mascot Felix the Cat interacted with commuters in London’s Waterloo station, hint at the possibilities for site- or object-specific mixed reality experiences, but have so far failed to change the relationship between participant and the physical space they inhabit, or the other objects in that space.
Imagine if, using the same technology, the installation had instead transformed all the commuters in the station into cats, translating their postures and movements into feline analogues and providing an entirely new perspective on the act of commuting. It might not have been as cute, but it would have been a harder image to shake off.
Data is not an entitlement but an exchange for value
Cultural organisations are starting to think about people who visit institutions and museums, and their data, in terms of a value-exchange model. Digital technologies can provide more relevant and longer lasting cultural and consumer experiences but they rely on the data generated by visitors. People freely give up this data in a civic context - they understand that the institution or artist is using digital technologies in an attempt to build better societies.
For brands that want to go beyond experiential as a gimmick, a similarly civic mindset needs to prevail. People need to be shown how their data will enable more meaningful experiences, help reveal the rich tapestry of relationships that weave through an increasingly interconnected world, and provide the insight for solving some of society’s biggest challenges.