Ai Weiwei VR

Ai Weiwei VR

By Drew Wilkins February 2023

There’s no doubt that Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts was the cultural phenomenon of that year. For those who weren’t able to see the show in person there was the chance to experience Ai Weiwei’s powerful work through an immersive and interactive 360 tour, available through desktop, mobile and virtual reality devices.

The digital experience featured broadcaster Jon Snow and interviews with Ai Weiwei himself.

We’re proud to have been a part of the Royal Academy’s Ai Weiwei production, working with Animal Vegetable Mineral, The Space and the BBC.


We extended the Royal Academy’s reach, providing access to the exhibition for a huge number of people. As significantly, the experience was a digital exploration of political artist Ai Weiwei’s lifework made available to a worldwide audience.

Using audio-visual content including 360 images, ambient audio, interviews and video, we were able to create a pickup-and-explore experience. One that provided easy access to Ai Weiwei’s work for newcomers as well as in-depth content for those who were familiar with the artist.

Our on-site research informed how we designed our user experience
Our on-site research informed how we designed our user experience

Imagery and Audio

Clearly the quality of imagery and ease of accessing Ai Weiwei’s work was key to the success of the digital experience. To deliver that high quality imagery and reach the maximum audience possible, we implemented scalable panoramic 360 images – allowing even relatively low specification mobile devices to deliver a smooth experience. Those with high end devices and fast connections experienced the exhibition through high resolution imagery.

Enabling people to interact with works of art using 360 video and virtual reality devices offered us the opportunity to explore new interface design methods. Our final design proved that we can position user interface elements within the environment without obstructing or taking away from the artwork on display, whilst still providing intuitive navigation controls.

Our ambition was to make people feel as immersed as possible in the gallery and to, as closely as possible, reproduce the experience of physically being there.

Audio had a role to play in that ambition.

We worked with carefully mixed, cut, and layered audio tracks to give each user a sense of the physical exhibition as an audio experience. As well as voice-overs and interviews, ambient audio added to the sense of ‘being there’.


We improved our interface over many user-led design iterations, building towards the goal of creating something unobtrusive and simple to use. Our need to produce a minimalistic interface and provide access for a global audience directed us toward iconography, which we user tested to ensure it was suitably clear and intuitive.

Minimalistic icons allowed core interactions to be language- free
Minimalistic icons allowed core interactions to be language- free

We worked on-site at the Royal Academy; researching the gallery’s layout and understanding how the physical exhibits, that had been curated in collaboration with Ai Weiwei, were positioned to provide the best experience. The results of that research went directly into the design and layout of the digital experience, right down to the viewpoints and numbers of the virtual exhibits matching those of the exhibition’s physical maps.

Our research also involved understanding how people behaved when viewing exhibits within the galleries. We reflected that behaviour in our interface by introducing overlays behind hotspot videos. These worked by fading out possible distractions and emulated the way people positioned themselves and contemplated on Ai Weiwei’s exhibits for long periods of time.

Hotspot videos allowed users a chance to reflect further on the artwork and the message behind it, so we minimised outside distraction by darkening the rest of the gallery and lowering background audio levels.

The digital experience used accelerometers on mobile devices, allowing intuitive and smooth motion control.

Interface elements were designed to be unobtrusive highlights around the artwork
Interface elements were designed to be unobtrusive highlights around the artwork


The experience required three separate audio tracks to be played at once – voice-over, ambient gallery audio, and background music. We overcame restrictions in web audio players on less capable mobile devices by detecting them and seamlessly switching to a pre-mixed single track version where necessary.

We used 360 video player technology to give an immersive experience in both desktop and mobile browsers
We used 360 video player technology to give an immersive experience in both desktop and mobile browsers

Beyond the Exhibit

With voice-over from Channel 4’s Jon Snow, there’s no doubt that the experience promoted debate. Users could share Ai Weiwei’s provocative work via Facebook and Twitter, widening the RA’s audience, and encouraging others to discuss the themes of freedom, consumerism, and subjugation that Ai Weiwei raises in his art.

The web experience also included optional subtitled video, further extending accessibility and audience.

The exhibition used responsive tilt, turn, and touch controls that ensured simple navigation throughout every gallery and allowed users to experience the entire exhibition from anywhere in the world, without needing to even set foot in the gallery.

You can explore the exhibition through your desktop or mobile browser until January 12th 2017.
The 360 tour enabled a global audience to experience the exhibition

If you’re interested in learning more about 360 video or virtual reality, get in touch.

Drew Wilkins
Blog Author:
Drew Wilkins
Drew is one of our Co-founders and Head of Educational Content at fish in a bottle. He has a wealth of experience in creating interactive content, games, websites and applications for web and mobile.

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