Google Art Project: 7 Billion Small Pixels

Nearly any conversation about Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings will inevitably include a statement about how his bold brush strokes and vibrant dots of color simply cannot be fully realized unless seen. It is often claimed that one must see a Van Gogh in person to really experience his technique and that no reproductions, prints, and certainly not the pixels on your computer screen can do the master justice. Van Gogh himself was known to have said that “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” How far can 7 billion small pixels take us?

Earlier this month, Google released Google Art Project: an online platform of high-resolution images of artworks from galleries all around the world including the Van Gogh Musuem, National Gallery, Alte Nationalgalerie, Smithsonian, MoMa, Palace of Versailles, Tate Britain, the Met, and more. Google Art Project itself began as a series of small things brought together. The project began as a “20 percent” project at Google, where employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their day to working on something unrelated to their general job, but appealing to their own desire to explore new technological possibilities. A small group of Google engineers conceptualized the idea as a tool for the world’s museums to share their collections. The idea was not just to create another database of art, but to actually create a 360 degree virtual reality experience using Google Street View indoors for the first time. Within eighteen months the team brought on 17 museums from 9 different countries to give us over 400 rooms of art to explore. Amongst 385 pieces of art, one piece from each museum was added as a high resolution image, which allows us to view these works in astounding new detail averaging at about 7 billion pixels. Put into perspective, that is 1000 times greater than most commercially available digital cameras.

Users can experience the art in two ways: artwork view, which focuses on specific pieces and suggests more art based on your selection; or museum view which allows us to navigate a museum via the floor plan or simply by “walking” via cursor clicks. The overall key to the experience is that it allows us to go deeper. Not only can the art be viewed in astounding detail, but the museum can be explored as a virtual reality experience. The experience is further enriched with details about each museum’s, location and history, with links and embedded video about specific art and artists.

Google Art Project is more than just shiny new technology for the museum crowd. The Google developers behind it envisioned the project as an actual platform which allows users to adapt new uses. One such functionality is the ability to create your own museum, filling it with your favorite works and sharing comments with friends and colleagues. You can see my own gallery at this link:

The sheer level of detail allows us not only to view Van Gogh’s famous thick brush strokes and little points of color, but to communicate about art with a new level of understanding. Google Art Project allows users to share their own “glimpse” by storing the positions of their personal view and sharing these small closeups of minor details. For example, James Elkin of The School of the Art institute of Chicago uses Google Art Project to hyper focus on small details of works of art, deciphering just how finished each piece really is and what these now shareable glimpses say about the artist’s experience creating the work.

Google Art Project is not without criticism. Art critic for The New Republic Jed Perl points out that, “a reproduction is a reproduction, even if it is in the highest imaginable resolution and you can move around it with the flick of a fingertip.” Many Google Art Project critics feel that not only is the experience of viewing the art lost in the digital counterpart, but that the virtual reality setting creates an “uncanny valley” effect that makes the focus more on the experience of navigating the technology and may distract viewers from ever visiting the museum’s themselves. The participating museum’s disagree, instead adopting the view that people that can’t, or generally wouldn’t, visit these art museums gain access to the collection in an engrossing way. They feel that technology won’t prevent people from visiting the museums, but will work to inspire them to pique an interest in art and therefore be more likely to visit the museum. Google Art Project is viewed along the same lines as the major audience building transformations museums have undergone in the last 20 years that work to expose people to art and make art accessible to everyone: a sort of digital free entrance day, if you will.

In the future, the team that brought us Google Art Project plans to respond to the desires for more works by increasing the pieces of art available and expanding their reach to include even more museums. The team also hopes to localize it as a platform and provide multiple language translations to make Google Art project even more accessible. After all, accessibility is part of the magic that makes Google Art Project an immersive experience, allowing you to get virtually lost in the brushstrokes of Van Gogh in your own home and for as long as you want.

“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”- Vincent Van Gogh

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