“We had to work out how we could make this experience accessible for people with mobility disabilities,” said Beth Ziebarth, director of the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Program.
Drew Doucette, who oversees multimedia and technology initiatives at the Hirshhorn, thought immediately of virtual reality.
“It’s really popular right now” among video gamers and tech geeks, Doucette said. “Rather than it being something that you play with, there’s an actual use for it if it’s around making things accessible to people as best as you can.”
Virtual reality has found many uses beyond just entertainment. News outlets, nongovernmental organizations and charities have turned to the technology to raise awareness for causes and tell more engaging stories. Applications have also been explored in the education, health care and defense industries, to name a few.
The Renwick Gallery, National Museum of Natural History and other Smithsonian Institution sites have created virtual experiences in the past, often with the goal of extending the exhibit to people or students who may not be able to visit in person. The “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit marks the first time any have used virtual reality to make an exhibit accessible to those with disabilities, Ziebarth said.
The wildly popular art exhibit is spread across six portable rooms, each filled with objects created by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. There’s the room with canary yellow pumpkins, the one with hot pink spheres and the room with simple pendant lights. Mirrored walls replicate these items over and over again to create a sense of infinite space.
The installation is designed to be immersive — and, as social media proves, makes for prime selfies.
But in three of the rooms, visitors must walk through 30-inch doorways and onto platforms less than four feet wide to achieve the full experience. The Americans With Disabilities Act dictates that wheelchair-bound individuals be able to make a 180-degree turn inside the room, a requirement the Hirshhorn could not meet without altering each room and the artist’s intention behind it.
It took roughly four months to plan and design the Infinity Mirrors virtual reality experience on Unity, a program typically used to build video games, Doucette said. At first, an engineer tried to replicate each room literally. But designing a three dimensional space covered in mirrors proved more difficult in the virtual world than the real one.
“We essentially had to take a step back from trying to recreate the rooms and get into the head of Kusama and say, ‘What was she trying to do? How did she end up using mirrors?'” Doucette said.
Without the limitations of a physical space, Doucette said, mirrors weren’t necessary at all. Instead, the engineer merely created a digital replica of the room as it appears to the viewer, including black lines where the seams of the mirrors would appear. Early screen captures of the project earned Kusama’s approval, and a representative from her studio signed off on the final version, Doucette said.
Users wearing the goggles can pivot their head side to side or move forward as they would in the actual room. It doesn’t quite capture the immersive experience of standing in the actual mirrored rooms, but, in a way, the view actually appears even more infinite than the original.
The Hirshhorn offers six Samsung virtual reality headsets that visitors with disabilities can request from volunteers on site. They are only available to patrons who are not physically capable of entering the rooms, though, so don’t look to VR to help you skip the exhibit’s notoriously long lines.
“I think that VR has a home in museums now, especially museums that are bringing in physical spaces and physical environments that you are supposed to walk into and experience, not just see something on the wall,” Doucette said. “When you are told you have to go into the space to experience this and you’re not able to do that, this is the perfect solution for it.”
See inside the much-hyped Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Hirshhorn
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.