Google aims to bring the world's great art galleries into the home with a new website that offers virtual tours using Street View technology, the ability to build private collections and ultra-high resolution images.
While most big galleries have been busy making their works accessible online for years, experts told a launch at London's Tate Britain gallery on Tuesday that Google's site was looking to take the online art experience to a new level.
It could be the game changer, said Julian Raby of the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian in Washington DC, which is one of 17 galleries taking part in the project.
Nelson Mattos, VP Engineering at Google, said the Art Project site (www.googleartproject.com) would allow children from Latin America, India and Africa, who were unlikely to see the originals, to come close to the experience on the internet.
This really represents a major step forward in the way people are going to interact with these beautiful treasures of art around the world, he said, adding that Google planned to expand the site over the coming years.
Mattos and art curators at the launch said they were confident that no matter how advanced the technology, the new site would never replace visiting the museums.
We obviously don't believe this technology is going to prevent people from coming to the museums, he added. We hope that the opposite will happen.
DEPTH OF EXPERIENCE
Raby believed the Art Project would add a new layer of experience to online art viewing.
Museums up to now have been obsessed with information, and what the Google Art Project does is to create an emotive experience, he said.
I see this not as an alternative (to visiting a museum) but as a stimulus to come and see the real works of art.
Amit Sood, the Google employee who started Art Project from scratch during time his employer freed up for personal initiatives, explained how the company used its Street View technology to develop virtual tours.
Cameras mounted on a special trolley travelled through empty galleries after the public had left, taking 360 degree images of selected rooms which were then stitched together. So far 385 rooms are navigable, and more will be added.
Each of the 17 museums involved also chose one artwork to be photographed using gigapixel photo capturing technology, resulting in an image on the computer containing seven billion pixels and providing detail not visible to the naked eye.
And so by zooming in on a broken string on the instrument in Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, from London's National Gallery, the viewer not only sees the string clearly but also where each new brushstroke has been applied.
We're interested in getting depth of understanding of a limited amount of works, said Tate director Nicholas Serota.
As well as 17 paintings selected for gigapixel treatment, the museums made available images of 1,000 more works, allowing people to study them in detail using a custom built zoom viewer.
Users can create their own collections, add comments and share their experiences, opening up educational opportunities.
Mattos said that there was no commercial benefit to Google from the enterprise, which the company paid for. He declined to say what costs were involved, however.
Among the galleries featured on the site are the Uffizi in Florence, the Palace of Versailles in France, Museum Kampa in Prague, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)