Instead of hiding in a vault, the world’s treasures can now sit before your very eyes

When augmented reality was baked into iOS 11, Apple invited you to take a different look at the world. The idea was to imagine if the line between the virtual and the real simply didn’t exist. Your iPhone or iPad became a window into a fusion of the two, digital objects being mapped on to real-world space. There was a feeling this technology would be transformative – but the question was: how?

A year and a half on, there’s still the feeling that some people consider AR little more than a throwaway gimmick, or they are awaiting the one ‘killer app’ that will cement the technology in their minds as something transformative. Apple, for its part, goes heavy on productivity, education, and play, outlining how AR enables you to use an iOS device for anything from finding the right departure gate at an airport to examining a virtual cadaver.

Surprisingly, though, the company doesn’t talk much about the world’s museums and galleries. It really should, because this is arguably an area in which AR has the potential to be truly revolutionary.

Arts and craft

Apple is an ideal company to work within this space. Co-founder Steve Jobs often talked about Apple’s place at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. But Apple’s also historically been heavily infused more widely in the world of arts and culture, unlocking critical thinking and creativity through the combination of hardware and software the company creates.

When it comes to experiencing and accessing art and culture, however, we’ve until now been largely restricted to the conventional: paper books; websites; CD-ROM and its various successors. In the real world, you must be fortunate enough to be in the right place – you’re only going to view the Mona Lisa if you can get to the Louvre in France, for example. Even being able to travel somewhere doesn’t guarantee access – after all, many shows are transient in nature, with collections of items only in one location for a short time; and the majority of permanent collections are hidden away in vaults, rather than being permanently on display.

The Damaged exhibit, in AR form

AR changes all of this. You don’t quite get to exist in a fully virtual world, Matrix-style. But also, AR finally moves us beyond static slideshows, two-dimensional videos, and once-dazzling but now old-hat 3D photography, where you could spin an item about its axis with a finger. With AR, there’s finally the option to immerse yourself in a digital recreation of anything from a fully explorable artifact to a painstakingly recreated virtual exhibition.

Treasure chest

The BBC’s Civilisations AR is perhaps the most accessible app so far created in this space. It collects over 30 items from a range of British museums, but whose origins span the entire globe and thousands of years of human history. Every item can be set before you, and be scaled, moved and rotated with the simplest of gestures.

This all seems perfectly logical when you’re examining a hovering 3D take on a Corinthian helmet, or amusing yourself by transforming Henry Moore’s 115cm-wide (nearly four feet) Reclining Figure into a desk ornament. But it also proves surprisingly effective with paintings like Turner’s Bridge Over the Ticino. The app’s image quality is such that you can press your nose right up to the virtual canvas – in a manner that would get you unceremoniously thrown out of a real museum – and breathe in every brushstroke. Counter-intuitively, you may gain a better understanding of the painting than through seeing the real thing.

Virtual spaces

Exhibitions that make heavy use of 3D space can also work wonderfully within the confines of an iOS device. Shepard Fairey AR – Damaged ($5/£5) transforms the entirety of a site-specific warehouse installation into an AR app.

If you have the room, you can walk around in 1:1 fashion, exploring the space as if it was real; if not, you can double-tap to zip right up to artworks. 3D audio further augments the sense of atmosphere, right through to the distant crackles of a buzzing neon sign.

Broadly similarly, David Bowie is ($7/£7) brings a hugely popular exhibition about one of music’s most famous artists to your phone. This one doesn’t have you walk around, instead presenting virtual items in a desktop fashion. From rare sheets of lyrics to classic videos, it’s a cultural experience that feels thoroughly modern, rather than clinging to the past by aping CD-ROMs from the 1990s.

App to the future

Detractors will no doubt argue there’s still no substitute for the real thing – and they’re right. Each of these apps is limited in scope by technology. In some cases, there are issues with graphical detail; elsewhere, you very much notice the lack of the real world’s physical, tactile nature, such as when examining Bowie costumes that end up more closely resembling leaden ‘skins’ you might see on a videogame character.

But there’s no doubting this is the start of a revolution. Each of these apps – and others like them – revels in the freedom technology affords. For the app itself, there are layers atop the artworks and items being displayed – information hot-spots in Civilisations AR; Fairey’s explanatory voiceovers in Damaged. But also, you as a user have the freedom to explore at leisure, unrestricted by opening hours and crowds.

In the case of the Fairey and Bowie apps, this comes at the fraction of the price you’d have paid for a real-world ticket; the BBC app is entirely free. Even though we’re in the early days of AR, then, it already feels like a technology with the potential to unlock and democratize art and culture, making it far more widely accessible; this in turn suggests an ambitious, exciting future for organizations and individuals savvy enough to grasp it.