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Talking Heads

Talking Heads is an immersive exhibit that allows guests to speak with historical figures at the National Portrait Gallery.



Teams will identify, frame, develop and design a project that yields a product, service or experience that improves a specific “problematic situation” on behalf of a particular target audience or group of users.




Myself + 1 Classmate


Talking Heads is an immersive exhibit that allows guests to speak with historical figures at the National Portrait Gallery via virtual reality technology. This service design case study seeks to explore how the National Portrait Gallery can be a dynamic learning environment as well as how we can encourage a fully immersive experience at the museum.


The National Portrait Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation's story. The National Portrait Gallery's mission is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture. 

Source: National Portrait Gallery

Using art to teach  American history

Provide students with the knowledge and time to learn how an artist’s techniques impact how we interpret historical events to help students become better historical thinkers and create deeper civil discourse. By making observations, asking questions, and sharing connections between art and history, students gain knowledge about history.

Source: Edutopia


Increasing engagement, interaction, & education in art museums.

Through the use of virtual reality, sound domes, and voice user interface technology guests will be able to have a conversation with 6 historical figures from all parts of history. Talking Heads aims to get guests engaged with the portraits that stand before them.

Our goals:

  • Encourage full engagement with the exhibit.

  • Create a dynamic learning environment.

  • Use modern technology to our advantage. 

User Research

We conducted lots of research for this project including competitor analysis, personas, and surveys. This research let us better understand who we were designing for, what our users needs were, and what kind of virtual reality exhibits were already on the market.

Competitor Analysis

Our competitor analysis allowed us to take our concept and compare it to some systems that already existed. We compared our exhibit, Talking Heads, with 3 other exhibits, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Reblink at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Mona Lisa Beyond the Glass at the Louvre. All of these exhibits have an element of virtual or augmented reality. Overall, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience was the biggest competitor, since it was also fully immersive, but Talking Heads had an edge up as it included speech interaction.

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Although our exhibit is for guests of any age, for this specific case study we decided to focus on users aged 10-13 as well as teachers who teach those age groups. Our research led us to find out that often times, students this age struggle to find interest in school and teachers struggle to keep engagement in their classrooms. 


We conducted a survey to figure out what portraits would be on display at the exhibit. The National Portrait Gallery has approximately 23,000 pieces of artwork, so me and my partner searched through the portraits on display, and made a list of about 20 for our survey. We wanted an even mix of men and women, political figures, pop culture figures, athletes, and activists so that there was someone for everyone. We had 40 total responses.

I have included the final portraits below.

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Exhibit Layout & Functionality

The exhibit layout was created based on the maps provided by the National Portrait Gallery. We realize that there is no way to predict how guests will navigate the exhibit without testing, and due to the scope and size of this project, we do not have access to that type of testing. This is purely conceptual and just a first prototype of what the layout would look like.

Next to each portrait would be a set of VR goggles, which the user would put on and it would allow them to see the portrait move. To start the conversation, the guest has to introduce themselves. After that, they are able to say virtually anything to the portrait by means of voice user interface technology.  When the user is done, they simply say goodbye, and take off the VR goggles. This is a timed entry exhibit, to limit the amount of people within the room, hopefully cutting down on the noise level. There are staff located at multiple points around the room to assist guests when needed.

Educational Resources

Along with the exhibit, we created a lesson plan for students and teachers who have seen the exhibit. This lesson plan would be found on the National Portrait Gallery's website as part of their educational resources for teachers. This lesson plan challenges students who have visited the exhibit to think about identity, since exploring identity and community is one of the major themes of not only portraiture in general, but of the National Portrait Gallery itself. There is a pre-visit activity and post-visit activity, objectives, and examples within the lesson plan. If you would like to view the full lesson plan, you can download it below.


Next Steps and

Take Aways

This was the first time I've ever done a project like this and I learned a lot about exactly how much and how many people it takes to complete something like this. I would love to get in touch with computer scientists, art historians, multimedia artists, and whoever else it took to try to make this project come to life in whatever capacity we could. In the future, I would love to further explore visual identity for the exhibit as well as create a social media and web presence. 

*This project is not affiliated with The National Portrait Gallery*

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