Virtual worlds are interactive environments created in a computer system. Virtual worlds are typically online and involve communities with many individuals. Many virtual worlds are rendered in 3-D and people participate as avatars. Avatars often take the form of people, but can be anything like animals, mythical creatures, and common objects.
Virtual worlds are exciting to the museums of the future because they allow interactive exploration of various exhibits. For example, people could explore a virtual world of ancient egypt and witness the construction of the pyramids. Users might explore a popular topic like dinosaurs, interacting with the creatures in a virtual living environment.
A virtual world is meant to be an interactive experience, rather than the passive viewing of television or film. In the museum setting, the purpose of the interactive experience is learning.
There are many challenges for the museum of the future to work with virtual worlds. There are hardware and software considerations that most instituitions can't handle. Partnering with a provider is probably the best option. For example, the Exploratorium in San Francisco is using the Second Life platform in online virtual events. It hosted a webcast of the sun and the rare planetary transit of Venus in June of 2012.
Today, most virtual worlds are interacted with through 2-D monitors and video screens. The hardware is changing fast, however, and a new generation of virtual reality devices are coming on market. These include devices like the Oculus Rift VR headset and haptic gloves to simulate touch sensation. In the next few years, we'll see this technology improve rapidly, and the rapid adoption and implementation of it will be important to the modern museum.
Beyond the hardware and software platform to enable a virtual world, the content of the virtual world must be created. Content includes static and dynamic elements in the environment. Static elements are items like buildings or trees in which the user's avatar has limited interaction. Dynamic elements are interactive objects that may change in significant ways, such as vehicles, other avatars, and non-player characters (NPCs).
The possibilities of virtual worlds for the museum of the future are almost limitless. As the hardware and software systems improve, the barrier between real and virtual will blur. The ability to interact with a wide range of experiences will make history, science, art, and more come alive like never before.