Virtual Reality Tours: Successes, Challenges, and Lessons Learned at Villa Lewaro

By Carson Bear posted 09-28-2018 08:10


In May 2018 the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to create a virtual reality (VR) tour of Villa Lewaro, a National Trust National Treasure. The tour was designed to help us promote our work centering African American history at the 2018 Essence Festival in New Orleans, July 5–8. In the course of mapping out, executing, and promoting the VR tour in just two short months, we learned quite a few lessons that others doing this work might find useful.

Villa Lewaro circa 1924 | Credit: A'Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker Family Archives

Lesson 1: Creating a VR tour can be time-consuming, so think carefully when choosing a place to promote through VR.

We chose Villa Lewaro—the former summer home of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made woman millionaire and an African American icon—for Madam Walker’s historical significance as well as the likelihood of name recognition by the Essence audience.

Lesson 2: If you work with Google to create your VR tour, feel free to raise any questions or concerns that come up during the process. (Explore whether you’re eligible for a partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.)

We worked closely with the Google Arts & Culture Team (part of the Google Cultural Institute team, with whom the National Trust has a partnership) and drew on their in-depth knowledge of all things VR. We started by:

  • Working with our Google point of contact to gather more information about VR capabilities;
  • Coordinating with the Google Street View team around floorplans, filming scope, and timeline for Street View capture; and
  • Agreeing on a production calendar shared with all relevant teams—Google Arts & Culture, Google Street View, and the National Trust teams.

The Google Street View team spent one day filming several rooms inside Villa Lewaro as well as the exterior. Within a week, they sent us footage to review.

According to Shannon Lawrence, a video producer at the National Trust, “The team was available to answer any questions during the process, and they responded to all inquiries promptly. I would recommend that anyone who works with Google [on a project like this one] keeps communication open. Feel free to ask questions if any part of the process is unclear, or if there are technical issues.”

All communications—including conference calls, tutorials, and editing—were routed through Google products, so it was helpful to have applications like Hangouts already available on our computers.

Once filming was complete, the editing process was fairly straightforward. Lawrence said, “The Google team sent the visuals they captured through the Google Arts & Culture editing software. My team and I had control over which images we wanted to keep and how we wanted the VR tour to flow. The instructions were easy to follow, and it was simple to accept or reject images based on what we felt was good quality or helped the flow of the tour.”

We didn’t need anything other than access to a Google account to use Google’s in-house editing software. The Google team sent us a link to the software, where we were able to view and edit the footage they had uploaded.

The film editing process took about a week, and we spent about four hours editing the raw footage before sending it back to the Google team. During editing, the lack of an interactive preview mode made it difficult to know what the full tour would look like. We had to wait until the Google team sent us a preview that incorporated our initial edits to see the flow of the rooms.

Lesson 3: If something can set your VR tour apart or deepen its emotional connection to the viewer, include it.

The most rewarding aspect of producing the tour was acquiring audio narration. Though not necessary for VR tours, audio narration helps improve production quality and can connect each room to the story behind it. Our team was lucky enough to work with A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker, to record the narration. We drafted a script, which she edited, and we went to her home to record her reading it. The personal touch that came with a descendant of the homeowner narrating the tour was invaluable.

Attaching the audio to the VR tour using the same tool that we had used to edit the VR footage was simple and straightforward. It took roughly 10 hours to create the script (including edits from both our internal team and Bundles), two hours to record it, and four hours to edit the footage and add it to the tour. This aspect of production, from script creation to attaching the audio, took two weeks. The Google team finalized the VR tour about a week before the Essence Festival began.

Screenshot from the VR tour showing the pool and rear view of the house. 

Lesson 4: Ask the Google team for detailed use instructions much earlier in the process, ideally before incorporating them into design materials.

After the tour was finalized, the National Trust team tested it both on desktop and through VR viewers, using the two different versions, each optimized for one of those devices, that Google had created.

We worked with an outside designer to create cardboard VR viewers from a pre-existing template (available online) that accommodates most mobile devices. That design took approximately 50 hours to create, and it took between seven and 10 days to print the 2,000 cardboard viewers we ordered for use as conference giveaways. We also bought a few high-end viewers to use at our booth; these included headphones, which naturally improved the audio experience.

We tested both viewers and found them fairly easy to use. We also tested our Phone2Action automated text messaging service to ensure that the link to the VR tour worked properly. That is when we ran into a challenge: there was no way to link directly to the VR tour optimized for mobile phone viewing; instead, our link was to the desktop-optimized tour. Attendees had to download the Google Arts and Culture App to access the mobile-optimized tour.

Our Creative team had printed cards with instructions for accessing the tour a month before Essence Fest, so they turned out to be inaccurate. To address this issue, we linked to the National Trust’s page in the Google Arts and Culture app, allowing the public to access the tour from that page with fewer steps.

Lesson 5: Make your call to action clear, concise, and easy to follow, especially at a large event.

Despite the hiccups, we took a successful virtual tour with accompanying “swag”—such as the cardboard viewers, the instruction card, a copy of a recent Essence story featuring the National Trust;, and a trifold handout about the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund—with us to New Orleans.

While there was great interest in experiencing the VR tour at our booth, we realized that very few people were signing up to see it using Phone2Action—and sharing their mobile contact information with us in the process. In the future, we plan to make texting our primary call to action because (1) it’s an easier ask and lower barrier to entry than following instruction cards, (2) it enables the user to access the tour easily and independently, and (3) it saves on staff administrative time manually capturing contact information—such as the 320 handwritten email signups we received at the booth.)

Lesson 6: If you’re at a large event, it’s critical to keep technology and staff capacity in mind. Consider enlisting support from local partners to staff your exhibit.

Technology can be its own challenge during a festival of Essence’s magnitude. National Trust associate manager of public affairs Ruth McBain explained, “Technology made it high risk and high reward. We needed to keep up with the demand, tracking the draining battery life of the [VR] viewers and ensuring we stayed connected to the internet at all times. We had to track the viewers’ functionality to try to give the best experience possible to attendees.”

We also underestimated the number of staff we would need to meet the overwhelming demand over the four-day weekend. The five employees we had present—several of whom had other responsibilities at the festival—were swamped by visitors’ interest and need for ongoing technical support.

Screen capture of the VR tour of Villa Lewaro

Lesson 7: As a newer, exciting technology, VR tours can serve as excellent promotional material. Those highlighting popular historical figures and events, in particular, can capitalize on name recognition and the connection between the audience and the history.

Our biggest success was the excitement about the tour and about Madam Walker. The ability to create an immersive, behind-the-scenes look at a historic place from a different state was invaluable to the success of our campaign.

McBain said, “To be able to show people a nearly tangible experience, where they can interact with history, was what made the entire experience a success. It was a success when each person [who saw the tour] turned to a friend and said, ‘Wow, you have to try this VR tour’—and [when] each person … asked us about Madam Walker and her estate. Our booth reflected an opportunity to ‘come inside Villa Lewaro,’ [which] was intriguing and a draw for attendees. Several times, people told us we were their favorite booth, and several attendees brought back friends and family to experience the tour.”

We look forward to creating more VR tours at historic sites around the country, and we plan to continue to promote our tour of Villa Lewaro at many future events, creating an emotional pull to saving and preserving historic places for future generations to enjoy—whether in real life or virtually.

Carson Bear is the editorial coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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