Google has finally finished work on the cameras it hopes will digitise the world’s art collections. Fittingly called the Art Camera, the extremely high-resolution robots will be lent out to museums for free, and photos taken with them will appear on Google’s online Culture Institute.
Yes, those are individual brushstrokes Image: Google Culture Institute
Digital art preservation isn’t new, but the Art Camera is leaps and bounds better because it’s supposedly idiot-proof. Once a human shows the Art Camera where the edges of a painting are it moves on its own, taking detailed photos piece by piece and uploading them off to Google’s servers where they get stitched back together into a gigapixel whole. The level of detail reveals even the faintest of brush strokes, and the Culture Institute website will allow users to know what materials were used as well as compare multiple works side by side.
Even more crucially, the Art Camera is designed to work quickly. Marzia Niccolai, the Cultural Institute’s technical program manager says that the Art Camera can cover a one metre by one metre canvas in half an hour, a process which might have taken a full day with previous tech. And because Google is building 20 of these cameras, the photography process can happen at multiple museums at once.
One major limitation of the Art Camera is that it’s not yet capable of capturing 3D objects or anything tremendously large (though Google hasn’t revealed the exact size limitation). That means sculptures and installations will have to wait until another day. In the meantime, there are over 1000 works already on the Culture Institute site including O’Keefes and Monets, all viewable in high resolution for free.
While the average person who can’t afford to fly to the Louvre might benefit from having great works of art digitised, the Culture Institute runs into a similar ownership issue as it did with Google Books. It’s not clear what museums might gain from letting Google amass its own art collection for free or whether Google will sell ads on the Culture Institute site one day. Nevertheless, giving more people access to great art seems like a good thing.