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Please don’t touch – unless it’s virtual

Aliya Sayakhova, Business Development Manager for Dolfin, explores the ways in which digital technology is transforming the way we experience museums today

8 October 2019 / Lifestyle

Aliya Sayakhova, Business Development Manager for Dolfin, explores the ways in which digital technology is transforming the way we experience museums today

Worldwide museum attendance has been booming for over a decade, with at least 140 million visitors flocking to UK museums last year alone. Free entrance to many institutions, the rise of global travel, new museum openings and improved access to new visitor demographics have all contributed to the growth of attendance figures across the world, from LA to Beijing.

While we enjoy enriching cultural experiences, we’re also increasingly attached to our phones and tablets: average daily mobile use in the UK reached three hours and 23 minutes in March 2019. Inevitably, the concurrent rise of museum attendance and digital and mobile technology use has seen new and innovative ways in which the two can be brought together.

The use of mobile audio guides and the digitalisation of museum collections began in the 2000s. Fast forward to today, and we see a proliferation of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) art exhibits and learning tools. The adoption of technology in art and museum contexts has coincided with developments in the tech sphere, sometimes even guiding and inspiring the latter.

Augmenting the museum experience

From using digital as a tool for immersion to turning art interpretation into an interactive game, forward-thinking museums are harnessing cutting-edge technology to help engage old and new generations of visitors alike.

In what ways does technology transform our museum experience today? The answers are manifold, and contingent primarily on the skills and imagination of artists, developers, and museums’ outreach and marketing departments as they become involved in the process of virtualisation and gamification of cultural institutions. At the Louvre in Paris, for example, visitors can bring their Nintendo 3DS and select their personalised audio tour while browsing through 3D photos and navigating around the galleries with the help of interactive maps.

“It is augmented reality that is increasingly becoming the guided tours’ format du jour.”

However, it is augmented reality that allows visitors to point through art objects with their mobile cameras and bring up relevant interactive content, that is increasingly becoming the guided tours’ format du jour. One of my favourite examples is from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., where AR technology was introduced to bring to life some of the oldest and most iconic displays. An app called Skin and Bone superimposes images over 13 skeletons from the collection, reconstructing their bodies and allowing visitors to visualise how these ancient creatures might have looked and moved many thousand years ago.

Unconventional thinking and imagination aside, when it comes to the speed of adoption and application of new technologies, costs remain a crucial factor. However, the barriers to entry for AR have decreased significantly over recent years, with the introduction of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore in 2017 marking a significant watershed. Both are software development kits that allow users to build AR applications and use a mobile phone camera to add interactive elements to an existing environment.

While these and multiple other free developer frameworks have been introduced for AR, VR remained a different story. In 2016, we saw a major tipping point with the release of the Oculus Rift gaming headset and the subsequent proliferation of VR in galleries and museums, yet the high cost of development and hardware still remain a hurdle to mass adoption.

Reimagining museum experience in the age of VR

The new applications allow visitors to travel through space and time with the help of their devices, and artists and institutions alike are keen to experiment with the opportunities these technologies afford. In 2017, prominent British artist Mat Collishaw employed VR technology to stage Thresholds at Somerset House in London, and subsequently other UK cultural institutions. Thresholds restages the world’s first major exhibition of photography, which took place in 1839, when British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Visitors can enter and explore a digitally reconstructed room, touch the vitrines and fixtures, and even sense the heat and scent of a coal fire.

Tate Modern did not lag far behind, offering a VR experience to the visitors of its sell-out Modigliani retrospective, presenting a digital recreation of the artist’s final studio in Paris alongside traditional painting and sculpture displays. Since there is no photographic record of the space, Tate undertook painstaking research, including forensic study of photographs of the present-day studio, now a private property, visitors’ diaries and letters and the artworks themselves, in order to reimagine Modigliani’s home as a virtual reality space. The resulting experience, with the rain drumming on the roof and the artist’s cigarette burning beside his palette, attracted long queues of visitors and a few cautiously positive remarks in critics’ reviews.

Museums and the experience economy

Elsewhere in the world, MONA in Tasmania, the largest privately funded museum in the Southern Hemisphere, engages technology in ways many other museums could neither afford nor imagine. The museum’s founder, David Walsh, is a professional gambler who claims guilt over the source of his wealth was one of the driving forces behind his decision to set up the now renowned and hugely popular museum, providing a huge boost to tourism in the region. None of the gallery spaces at MONA have wall texts; instead visitors are handed a device called The O, which allows one to read and listen to music, stories and interviews with artists, as well as ‘like’ or ‘hate’ artworks on view – needless to say, this functionality proved particularly popular with the guests.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the world’s largest institution dedicated to digital and interactive art opened in the Odaiba district of Tokyo in June 2019. The new museum, a collaboration between the property developer Mori Building Company and teamLab, an interdisciplinary collective of ‘ultratechnologists’, features 50 digital artworks, 520 computers, and 470 projectors, displaying visuals over walls, floors and ceilings over more than 107,000 square feet of space. Installations are triggered by motion sensors and each area is bathed in music and ambient sounds that thematically match the kaleidoscopic digital art displays, from computer-generated landscapes of waterfalls, forests, and birds, to a playground where visitors can jump on a virtual trampoline and even a virtual tea house.

AR and VR are here to stay

As digital technologies are increasingly turning museums into physical and virtual playgrounds, many voice concern about the consequences of such developments. But the advocates stay buoyant: digital has helped demystify the world of art, making it both more accessible and engaging for viewers, and bringing millions of new visitors into the world’s cultural spaces, they argue. Besides, digital games enhance the learning experience through the active participation and interaction that apps make possible. According to the ArtLens app’s data, the average time people looked at an artwork used to be two to three seconds – but with the help of technology, visitors are now devoting 15 seconds to each object on display.

“Digital has helped demystify the world of art, making it both more accessible and engaging for viewers.”

While many museums are still taking their first baby steps towards digitisation, others are already asking difficult questions about their use of technology and its social impact. With time, forward-looking organisations will hopefully move away from multisensory Disneyfication of the museum experience towards combining cutting-edge technology with the critical inquiry about its applications in the wider world.

While more technological innovations and interfaces, such as the integration of artificial intelligence and blockchain technology in the cultural sphere, are already under way, arguably, AR and VR will soon become just as ubiquitous and crucial to a museum experience tomorrow as websites are today.

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