“I’m floating in Dickens’ entry way and the photo frames on the wall are my size! I feel like Alice in Wonderland!”
After 10 months of Covid isolation, my partner decided it was time for a new gadget. Hello Oculus Quest 2. With a little coaxing I pulled it over my head. A guy with a gun was coming at me! I screamed and pulled the headset off. Nope! After a little bizarre fidgeting in the middle of the living room, my partner handed it back with a “Here, try this one.” Cautiously, I again put on the headset. The room around me was moving forward, but my actual feet were firmly planted in one spot. My stomach lurched. Motion sickness. I yanked the headset off again and handed it back. No thanks.
A day later, I sat down to do some research into the ways small author house museums had adapted their online content during Covid. I started with a list of houses I’d been to, so I was perusing the Charles Dickens Museum site and clicked on the Interactive Tour. If I couldn’t revisit in person just now, perhaps this would suffice. In the lower right hand corner of the tour box on the screen I noticed a strange looking button. I moused over it and the hover text indicated this was to turn on VR with any VR device. You’re joking, I thought as I tugged the Oculus headset toward me. I stepped to the center of the room, clearing obstacles out of my way. Once again I fit the headset over my head, and entered the VR world.
Virtual Reality Tour of Charles Dickens Museum, London, England
Using the control panel, I opened an internet browser and navigated to the Dickens tour site. I pressed the VR button and let out an audible, “No wayyyy!” Suddenly, I was standing in the familiar entryway of the Charles Dickens House Museum! Or more accurately, seemingly floating several feet off the ground just inside the doorway.
Looking to my left, I noticed I was about level with the framed documents on the wall and the frames seemed to stretch upwards of the top of my head. It was all a bit Alice in Wonderlandish- minus the sound. I managed to maneuver myself quite intuitively into the Dickens’ dining room and noticed the distinct lack of dinner chatter and plate clattering that can be heard when entering this room at the museum in person.
I continued to the next room where I noted the lack of explanation I now had of artifacts in the room. Luckily I already knew what I was looking at. From there I decided to head downstairs and work my way back up. Downstairs was one of my favorite rooms, it was a room used for drying spices. In person you can smell the lavender which hangs from a drying rack on the ceiling. Now, unfortunately, the VR didn’t provide the smell.
I navigated myself upstairs to stand in Dickens’ living room. There was the large mirror he used to practice reading in front of and also his custom lectern built so you could see his legs because he really got into the characters. Despite the lack of sound, smell, and detail, I was happy to be standing here, virtually speaking. Although it definitely wasn’t as immersive as visiting in person, it was a close second if you can’t get to London.
I headed back downstairs where I lastly perused the gift shop. I could order online if I saw something I wanted and didn’t have to worry about taking up room in a suitcase! Unfortunately, I now had a strong craving for afternoon cream tea and the desire to sit in the museum’s cafe courtyard and read for the rest of the day. While I was able to float myself out to the courtyard, I knew nobody was bringing me tea and I had no hands with which to pick up a book and read. There are some things VR won’t be able to replace.
Virtual Reality Tour of Mark Twain’s House & Museum, Hartford, CT, USA
The Dickens Museum was so much fun that I next decided to explore a museum I haven’t visited yet to compare the experience. Back at the internet browser I pulled up the Mark Twain House Virtual Tour and with the point and click of my finger I was suddenly floating inside the museum’s entrance! The house was huge! At least compared to Dickens skinny London townhouse which I had just toured. This house had a wide foyer and 3 story staircase.
I floated myself into what looked like Samuel Clemens’ library. I silently turned all the way around, reveling in the fact that I seemingly had this room of deep lush reds and browns and old books all to myself. No other tourists would ruin the moment here in the VR world!
With another click of the button under my finger, I moved forward into what looked like an attached greenhouse/sunroom. The small water fountain in the middle was frozen in time. I bet in person one could feel the warmth of the sun in this room and hear the trickle of the water from the fountain. Interestingly, the same calm feeling you get of standing in an enclosed garden all alone came over me.
Fiddling with my controller, I visited another room and found myself standing next to a room divider screen which I suddenly realized looked familiar! My friend, and fellow travel blogger, Jodi is the Director of Collections at the Mark Twain House, and she’s been producing a series of YouTube videos about the Clemens family and the house during Covid which I’ve enjoyed watching. I remembered seeing this screen in one of the videos and now I was “standing” right beside it! Right in Jodi’s footsteps, virtually speaking.
Pointing and clicking myself upstairs, I “wandered” through a bedroom with a boy’s outfit laid out on the bed. I wondered if this was meant to represent a book character or a family member. I found Clemens’ desk in the billiard room, but there wasn’t enough detail to examine the papers that were displayed on the pool table. I found what looked like a classroom with four school desks in it. Although I had no explanations available to know exactly what I was looking at, it was still fun to be able to see the inside of the museum at all.
Removing the headset and returning to the, now less exciting, 3D tour on the computer, I realized some objects in each room had yellow buttons that provided explanation. The yellow dots had not been on the VR tour! Perhaps I should have done the 3D tour first so I’d know what I was looking at, but at least now I could fill in the gaps. I learned the school room was used for schooling the Clemens children. And the billiard room became Samuel Clemens office when he had to move out of another room that became his daughters’ room.
Knowing I had missed the in-person sounds and smells of the Dickens house, I wondered what I was missing that only an in-person visit could render at the Mark Twain House. Now I wanted to visit even more.
Virtual Reality Tour of Anne Frank’s House, Amsterdam, Holland
Before being allowed to enter the VR Annex, the app requires the player to watch a short video that provides the historical context of the house. This, I felt, was the thing I was missing from the previous two houses I’d “experienced”. The video placed me in the same reverent mood with which I had entered the Annex during my in-person visit. Despite the somber feeling, I couldn’t help smiling and feeling a bit excited when next I realized I had to reach out and pull the bookshelf before me myself to reveal the entrance to the Annex.
Stepping into one of the rooms in the Annex, I had several realizations at once. First, there was furniture in the room! The actual museum has left the Annex rooms stripped of furniture, just as they were by the Nazis after the inhabitants were discovered. Anne Frank’s father, the only one to return, insisted that the museum leave the rooms that way. In the app, the rooms have been virtually recreated to look like they would have during the time the family lived there, not as they do now. At the museum it was hard to associate the empty rooms with its history when there was almost nothing left to see but the walls and floor. Now, in a room filled with furniture and personal effects, the feelings I had expected to feel at the museum but didn’t, welled inside me.
Second, while I believe there was some benefit at the real museum to see the other tourists from all over the world sharing the somber visit with you, in VR I had the place to myself. Having a tourist destination all to yourself is always a glorious feeling. Especially when it’s the kind of place that calls for quiet reflection.
Finally, I was happy to see that I was at floor level, not floating, and the experience was interactive. In Anne’s room I was able to reach out and pick up her diary off her desk! I couldn’t open it, but being able to “pick up” such a famous, now museum artifact, was quite thrilling! Sadly, the VR does not extend to your feet. When I reached the attic ladder that should have led up to the one window Anne used to look at the tree outside, it looked like the ladder was there in front of me. I even instinctively picked up my foot to try the first step, but all I hit was air.
Throughout the Annex, quote (“”) buttons appeared that, when pressed, would recite relevant snippets from Anne’s diary. After working my way through the whole Annex I felt I’d had a full experience comparable, but different, to the one I’d had in Amsterdam.
Taking off the Oculus headset, I realized I felt refreshed, like I’d actually taken a vacation. Just for a bit, I’d been somewhere else. I had that high you get from travel. Part of me wanted to pop the headset back on and explore the three houses again for a few more hours. Unfortunately, I was back in my living room and real-world chores were calling. Just for a moment I’d been able to escape.
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Have you tried a VR device? If you could leap inside a book through VR, where would you go? Let’s chat in the comments below!
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