How Virtual Reality Can Melt Your Heart.

The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street 

I ‘spoke’ to a Greek immigrant who moved to New York in 1913 at the weekend. Her name was Victoria Confino and I ‘met’ her on one of the tours organized at the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

This was one of the first tenement settlements established in New York at the start of the 20th century, allowing immigrant families who had just arrived in the city the residential stepping stone they needed to get on their feet before moving on or moving up into their new American lives.

97 Orchard Street currently serves the city of New York as a museum, where visitors curious about the history of the city, immigration, the Lower East Site and the role it played in the American melting pot of the 19th and 20th centuries can uncover some of the families who lived there; the businesses that flourished in the area; the standard of life and the amenities; the cultural differences between immigrants’ home countries and the New World; the conflict between their perception of the American Dream as perceived from afar and the everyday harsh realities and anxieties of actually immigrating and living in the US, in particular New York.

Victoria Confino 

In the tour I attended, an actress impersonated 20th century immigrant Victoria Confino and welcomed visitors inside her family’s apartment. Her whole attire, demeanor and talk was tuned to that of the real-life character, a 14-year-old Jewish girl who had moved from Greece with her family to escape her brother being enlisted in the Great War (World War I, at the time).

She now lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street; worked as a seamstress in her father’s business sowing aprons; slept on the kitchen floor in her family’s apartment; went to kindergarten as she arrived in the US at the age of 11 to pick up English; said her father would allow her not to marry at 15 and wait a little more before he chose a husband for her, although she still didn’t know what to make of ‘the modern women’ of New York who were choosing their boyfriends and husbands ‘on romantic love’; thought Orchard Street was safe, although Allen Street, one block West, was dangerous at night because of the women who worked there.

Between two worlds

I learned the above from the actress playing ‘Victoria’, listening to her perched on a chair in ‘her family’s apartment’, asking the actress / real-life immigrant question after question about her life.

I had signed up for a museum tour and stepped back in time, my heart leaping and warming at the thought that I had the opportunity of ‘speaking’ to someone from another time, culture, and country, who had all of a sudden become ‘available’ for an interaction and so many things to reveal and stories to tell.

For twenty minutes, I existed in a world between reality, alternative reality and a precursor of virtual reality; a 2D and a 3D set altogether; past and present in the same picture, no longer separated by the boundaries of time and space.

While this wasn’t a Virtual Reality (VR) experience and there was no Oculus Rift to immerse me in a new dimension, the visit got me thinking again about the potential of actual VR to bring different and distant cultures, realms, times, and worlds to life. Educate, foster empathy and understanding towards that which is not directly connected or related to us; preserve the past; support knowledge and learning, so that we don’t forget who we are and where we come from.

In the realm of branding, VR is a way of enhancing the brand experience and immersing consumers in an extension of it. In the realm of culture and history, VR is a way of bringing the past to life as if it happened only yesterday and create a memorable, mind-blowing and powerful experience. It is an opportunity for every institution in the world that deals with culture, heritage and history (e.g. museums, world-heritage sites, etc.) to multi-dimensionalize their impact, interactivity, span, and work and for consumers to be blown away.

To experience something of the sort, visit Petra through Google Cardboard.

Welcome to your virtual tour.

I recently attended a session at Google Campus, courtesy of being an alumna of Squared Online. Oh, those were the days. It covered some of the innovative projects that Google has recently spearheaded in its work to help digitalise pretty much every other industry out there.

One of these has been ‘Google presents – Inside Abbey Road Studios’. This is a project through which the London-based recording studio was mapped out and turned into a virtual tour that made it available to audiences all around the world.

It hasn’t been the first time that a public space has become available 24/7 through digital. As the habit of getting in touch with the world through online first goes native, the number of artistic, cultural or political sights that will be able to provide a virtual experience will increase, too. That will make for an exciting and interactive future. Why so exciting?

Firstly, because art and culture will become accessible from everywhere in the world enabling us to explore sights that have marked our world history and culture from the comfort of our house, without the boundaries that are currently imposed by time, geography or finance.

Imagine sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, browsing through the galleries of The Louvre, stepping through the gates of Petra or digitally climbing your way to Machu Picchu. Enjoy it on your own or with your family; to satisfy your curiosity or prepare for the actual visit. How does that sound? To me, like a dream come true.

Secondly, because making world-renowned sites available through digital will help preserve them. Higher accessibility online and offline will mean higher exposure, enhanced awareness and hopefully proactiveness towards securing their future. Places such as Buckingham Palace, The Hermitage or The Museum of Modern Art already have their future secured but others that have not yet made it to the world table have a chance to do so by getting on the virtual radar.

Inventorying the world’s heritage through photography, video, 3D and digital is also a good way of safeguarding it. We don’t worry about losing our heritage as much today as we did in the past. However, as we continue to mourn the loss of the artefacts lost in the fire of Alexandria, during the Nazi plunder or – more recently – during the destruction of the Syrian heritage, securing a digital footprint of what we today take for granted is a very good way of ensuring that our past never gets erased again.

Thirdly, because it will educate us all on the richness of our world and, in turn, enhance cross-cultural communication and empathy. We live in a global world but our understanding of it is pretty much siloed through the culture that has shaped us. Is it wishful to think that we will be able to understand others better by having more access to the places that define their history? I certainly don’t think so.

And finally, the future is exciting as more and more services emerge to support the digitalisation of these spaces. Google has broken the ice and set an example, but the future will also belong to agencies that provide digital and virtual experience services as part of their offer. Most well-established branding or experiential agencies already provide digital, 3D and video services – what is needed is the vision to puzzle them together for this kind of work and roll out a pilot project. Any takers?