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The sun is shining, the birds are singing. You can shut the curtains and tour The National Museum of Computing in VR

We don't have to go... outside... to have a good time, oh no

It's a beautiful day in old Blighty, hotter even than former party capital Ibiza in the Mediterranean. Are you going to go outside?

Heck no, you're a sunshine-shirking nerd who works with and reads about computers for fun. Plus there are horrible diseases.

Fortunately for you, The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) has some good news about how to enjoy its exhibits safely, without having to leave the sweaty crevices of your desk chair.

The world's largest collection of working historic computers, kept at England's wartime code-cracking nerve centre of Bletchley Park, has thrown open its doors – virtually – so anyone anywhere can view it.

With but a click, you will be whisked away to a 3D render of the Buckinghamshire hoard, then zoomed down into the museum's entrance lobby. From there, you can navigate the long white halls of computing history in Google StreetView style.

The Turing-Welchman Bombe, The National Museum of Computing History's virtual tour

Virtual reality is da Bombe

Each exhibit has a green circle to hover over, offering a brief description with a link to more in-depth information and media. It's quite enjoyable simply to walk around as if playing Myst, and especially interesting if you've never had the pleasure of visiting before.

The tour has been made possible with funding from the Milton Keynes Community Foundation's COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, as we know museums particularly have been struggling through the pandemic, and created in association with Venue View Virtual Tours and interpretation specialist Blended Past.

It can be accessed on desktop, tablet, mobile or even using a virtual-reality headset. Highlights include:

  • The 1940s and the computers that helped win the Second World War. These include famous codebreaking machines such as a rebuild of Colossus and replica of Alan Turing's Bombe.
  • The first commercial computers of the 1950s. TNMOC's collection includes the world's oldest working digital computer – the 2.5-tonne Harwell Dekatron/WITCH that employed vacuum tubes as a precursor to modern computer memory.
  • Giant, room-sized mainframes that became the first systems to be widely adopted by companies around the world. These were some of the first computers to use transistors, which made them reliable and capable of being mass-produced.
  • The PC gallery – home to a generation of systems that sparked a revolution in business and home computing. The museum's display includes innovative and pioneering designs from British icons such as Sinclair, Amstrad and Acorn and their US rivals Apple and Commodore.
Jason Fitzpatrick with the Limted Edition backers edition of Elite Dangerous and an original 5.25" Floppy disk from the early '80s

Elite name on Brit scene sponsors retro video games preservation project at the Centre for Computing History


And that's just a snippet of the free stuff. If you fancy a more curated and personal experience, a paid-for tour for 10 people is in the works. Details on how to book will be published here in due course.

TNMOC chairman Dr Andrew Herbert said: "The coronavirus pandemic and the necessary restrictions are making us think in new ways about displaying our story of computing to the public. The 3D virtual and live curated tours are helping us stay connected and also to breakthrough to reach new audiences, which is especially important during this pandemic."

Keith McMahon, managing director of Venue View virtual tours, added: "The National Museum of Computing has joined some of the most innovative museums from the Tate Modern, HMS Belfast and the Churchill War Rooms in delivering a 3D tour of its facilities. TNMOC provides people the opportunity to explore via the screen of their choice and the interactive nature of the tour means there is something for everyone."

So pull on your Oculus, hop in and have a look around. The boss won't see if you're working from home [??? – ed]. If this pales in comparison to the real thing, you don't have long to wait either. The museum aims to reopen physically on 8 September. Virtual tours will continue. ®

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