Museums shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic have faced an existential crisis, seeing their revenue disappear as their patrons were forced to stay at home. Today, Verizon announced two initiatives to reimagine museum exhibits for the “new norm:” augmented reality versions of artifacts currently found in Smithsonian museums, and a contest to imagine new digital tools and experiences for future exhibitions.

Available now, Verizon’s AR museum experience allows users to access digital versions of exhibits using little more than a smartphone’s camera and web browser. In one example, scanning a QR code opens a woolly mammoth from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, capable of being displayed at full scale or pocket size within any space, complete with audio narration, a floating informational placard, and links to related web content. Additional experiences include a Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan exhibit derived from the National Museum of American History, and a Wright Flyer exhibit from the National Air and Space Museum.

In essence, the AR museum experience enables people who are schooling or working from home to virtually visit parts of famed Washington, D.C. galleries, powered by the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections — 2.8 million 2D and 3D assets that were made available to the public. While Verizon’s viewer is pretty simple, offering a convenient browser-based, swipe-to-spin view of 3D objects with less than wholly photorealistic fidelity, the company and the Smithsonian are hoping to make the next generation of experiences even more compelling — part of the institution’s ongoing commitment to embrace rather than ignore emerging technologies and tech-inspired trends.

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Later this fall, Verizon and Cooper Hewitt — the Smithsonian Design Museum — will launch Activating Smithsonian Open Access, a contest designed to spur the development of new digital tools and experiences. The cellular carrier and museum system will offer up to six $10,000 commissions for teams with creative new digital exhibition ideas, leading to the development of functioning prototypes for public use, and the potential to receive further funding based on merit. Interested teams can sign up here for notifications.

The projects are backed by and receiving assistance from Verizon’s 5G Labs, but the solutions aren’t yet dependent on the carrier’s 5G network, which has continued to offer inconsistent speeds with sharp peaks and valleys. Verizon expects that additional 5G bandwidth and low latency will lead to “even more amazing enhancements” for museum experiences, but didn’t offer details. In late 2019, the carrier used 5G to demo augmented reality overlays of location-aware imagery and data atop live camera feeds, hinting at how its Ultra Wideband network will mix reality with digital content in the future.

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