Virtual Dressing Room at the NMAH

Earlier this fall I visited Washington D.C. with my exhibit design studio. We went to multiple exhibits, museums, and monuments in DC and I came across a wide variety of the different digital tools we’ve discussed in this course.

In the newly opened Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation of the National Museum of American History, I saw a number of digital tools at work. From interactive touchscreens to exhibit elements that integrate sound and video to signs encouraging social media activity, this center is clearly using technology to great effect. Their website is similarly very interactive, allowing online visitors opportunities to play games, use their mouse to sketch ideas, and discover more about the different forms of innovation bring celebrated at this new exhibit/learning center.


Items in the museum’s collection

One interactive display really caught my eye: a Virtual Dressing Room where visitors could try on different clothing items from the museum’s collection. Dubbed Magic Mirrors, these screens allow visitors to envision what they look like in say a 1970’s era plaid suit or an 1890’s bathing costume.




From what I have read online, I believe this project was developed by Zugara, whose website mentions that the Smithsonian recently featured their augmented reality patent as one of 13 “feature examples of American ingenuity developed by independent inventors, academic institutions, corporations and government agencies,” according to a Smithsonian press release. From Zugara’s website, Patent  #8,275,590  is intended to “provid[e] a simulation of wearing items such as garments and/or accessories. This patent license is available for companies that would like to develop virtual dressing room simulations that allow people to view virtual items on themselves through a live video feed. This could be through a 2D camera, 3D camera (like Kinect) or other video input device where the virtual item tracks to the motion, position, and/or orientation of the user. Additional claims in the patent relate to purchasing, video conferencing and social network sharing through the virtual dressing room simulation.”


Try it on!

The screens utilize augmented reality to transform the image of the visitor projected on the screen. According to an article: “the idea is to use a webcam and technology like the Microsoft Kinect sensor (or Intel’s RealSense camera) to select outfits you might want to try on, and the software will put it on for you” (source). From an educational standpoint, allowing visitors to “try on” period costumes instead of viewing them on mannequins or behind vitrines is a much more engaging way of learning about NMAH’s  clothing collection. By providing historical background imagery and facts about the different pieces, you can learn not just about what the different articles of clothing looked like, but also the larger historical context in which they were worn.  Although it was a bit difficult to capture an image of my face with the sensor, I did enjoy getting to “try on” different outfits and see my figure onscreen move in tandem with my own movements. While the kiosks are certainly fun to play around with, there is also definitely a clear educational mission.


A bathing costume from the 1890’s


To further the use of digital tools, visitors are encouraged to discuss their discoveries in the Innovation Center on social media. Using the hashtag #objectproject, visitors can upload photos, tweet, or post on Facebook about different objects they find, either to show off what they saw or to even ask a curator a question.



All in all, I think the Magic Mirror Virtual Dressing Rooms are a very successful digital tool: they are  fun to use and they efficiently display a variety of content in a very engaging manner. Not only do the kiosks allow users to discover elements of the museum collection, but the kiosks themselves become a kind of artifact for visitors to learn about and experiment with. They represent a very newly patented technology, highlighting the innovation that this new center was created to display and celebrate.


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