Pholiota Unlocked

Bringing virtual reality to Melbourne Festival’s Cultural Collisions exhibition

A narrative that alternates between real and virtual experiences helps keep the focus of an exhibit on the cultural heritage content while also enhancing the experience with virtual technologies.

Visitors participate in real and virtual experiences inside the replica of Pholiota

Project overview

The use of new technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) in cultural institutions like art galleries, libraries and museums is becoming increasingly popular. In providing an immersive experience that gives the user a strong feeling of presence, these technologies can enable new experiences in cultural narratives and storytelling. However, their role in communicating cultural heritage runs the risk of being counterproductive if audiences become more engrossed in the technology than in the exhibitions, experiences and cultural transmissions.

In this project, we design a narrative that alternates between the real and virtual experiences, to bring the focus back to the cultural heritage content while also enhancing the experience with virtual technologies. We define the narrative as Alternating Reality (AltR). An AltR narrative alternates between virtual and physical realities where both environments play a role in augmenting, highlighting, or explicating each other. In a VR experience, the virtual information overrides the physical environment to simulate an experience for the user which is different to the one they physically occupy. In AR, the virtual information directly complements or augments the physical environment by being presented to the user simultaneously on a display. While VR and AR replace the user’s sensory perception with virtual stimulants, AltR specifies an approach of interweaving experiences, combining the best of both the physical and virtual worlds and enabling the user to fully experience both worlds separately and in turn. This approach reduces the risk of the cultural heritage content becoming secondary to the technology by alternating the visitor’s attention between the physical content and its virtual extension.

We designed and implemented an Alternating Reality experience to complement the architectural installation Pholiota Unlocked, on display as part of Melbourne Festival’s Cultural Collisions exhibitions at the University of Melbourne. The installation contained a physical replica of Pholiota, the innovative and tiny home of famed Melbourne artists Walter Burley Griffin and Marian Mahony Griffin. VR cardboard headsets allowed visitors to use their smartphones to get a 3D vision of a New Pholiota, experiencing what the small house would look like in a 21st century setting, with updated floor plan, furniture and fixtures. The AltR narrative allowed the communication of cultural heritage along with an alternative, imagined and modern perspective.

Pholiota Unlocked and A New Pholiota, on display 7–23 October 2016, Dulux Gallery, ground floor, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne.

Project team

  • Travis Cox, Researcher, Microsoft Research Centre for SocialNUI, The University of Melbourne
  • Thuong Hoang
    Thuong Hoang, Lecturer, School of Information Technology, Deakin University
  • Mengyan Wang, Masters student, Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne


Hoang, T.N. & Cox, T.N. (2018) Alternating Reality: An Interweaving Narrative of Physical and Virtual Cultural Exhibitions, Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 26(1)