A Q-and-A With One of the Brains Behind Google Art Project

A screen from Google Art Project.
Last week, Google introduced Google Art Project, a virtual museum tour of sorts based on Google's Street View technology. It's a cool idea, and a great way to visit famous art galleries without having to actually visit them. We at GeekTech had the privilege of having an e-mail interview with Jason Brush, the Executive Vice President of User Experience at Schematic, the company that Google worked with to develop Google Art Project. Here's what he had to say.

GeekTech: What was the inspiration and motivation for this project?

Jason Brush: The goal was pretty simple: to make art accessible to more people around the world. For most people, traveling around the globe to see art is a luxury that's far out of reach, and Art Project was an opportunity to make that artwork available to anybody with an Internet connection. Google was also in a great position to make this a reality, since they had the technology needed.

GT: How big is the Google Art Project team?

JB: I'm not equipped to talk about the full breadth of everybody who worked on the project, given the many partners involved--the team at Google who came up with the idea, lead by Amit Sood, the museums, the team that shot the photographs, the street view team, the Google engineers who created the custom Street View and artwork viewer technology, and we at Schematic who designed and built the interface--but on Schematic's side it was a small group of designers and technologists.

GT: What tools did you use for the project?

JB: Powered by a broad, connected suite of Google technologies, Art Project is a Java-based Google App Engine Web application. The site exists entirely on Google's infrastructure, and was built using Google APIs that are available to the public.

The museum “gallery view” employs Google Street View. In each museum, featured artwork are mapped to their longitude and latitude within museum being delivered by Street View. This location data allows people to see which artwork can be explored further, and link to that information in the site's second main section, the artwork "microscope view".

The artwork “microscope view” uses Picasa to deliver high-resolution captures of artwork. People can then learn more about the artwork they are viewing through content delivered through the Google Scholar, Google Docs and YouTube APIs.

To share personalized collections of artwork, people can log in with their Google account. Using the integrated Goo.gl URL shortener, they can then share unique links to their collections by e-mail, or to various Web services.

GT: What was it like to work with the museums? What issues did you encounter? Did you show up when the museums were closed? Give us a little background on that.

JB: We at Schematic weren't involved with the capture of the images themselves, so I can't comment on the logistics involved (which were no doubt significant). However, we did encounter some interesting challenges working with the Street View captures of the museums that Google had created.

One issue was creating a design scheme for the links that appear next to artworks that have corresponding zoomable "microscope" views. We needed the links to be clearly readable, but without detracting from the gallery experience. However, the widely varied décor of partner museums' galleries--ranging from the ornate Palace of Versailles to the MoMA's more minimalist style--made it a challenge to come up with a one-size-fits-all design style for the links, such as one sees in Street View's standardized head-up display elements. Our solution was to design a link style that scaled between museums--simple, modernist galleries got smaller icons, and more rococo galleries larger ones.

Another challenge involved the placement of these links vis-a-vis your perspective of the artwork on the gallery walls. In Street View's normal experience wandering city streets, it's helpful to have the head up display that labels a particular building or monument appear on top of its subject. However, in Art Project we needed to ensure that the links didn't block or obscure the artwork, but instead behaved more like museum labels--consistently placed off to the side. To achieve this, the placement of each link had to be manually adjusted, and we had to become experts in the layout of all the partner museums. Needless to say, many, many hours were spent virtually wandering the halls of each museum in the process of creating the site.

GT: Did you run into any notable technical issues along the way?

JB: The Google APIs really sped our development. The biggest challenge was the aforementioned issues of placing the contextual links into Street View. A particular technology and design challenge with this was making sure that the links to artwork details we created in Street View didn't overlap paintings, and were placed consistently next to the paintings they were annotating.

GT: How did you go about choosing which galleries and museums to feature?

JB: The museums selected which galleries and artworks they wanted to feature.

GT: How do you see this sort of thing playing out in the future? Are you planning to expand to other museums? Are there any other uses you see for this sort of technology?

JB: I think one of the most notable achievements of Art Project is how it introduces a new model for viewing art that can be expanded upon. In the same way that televised sports can't replicate the thrill of the live game, but gives you a unique point of view you couldn't have in person--with slow motion, close-ups, and instant replay--Art Project can't replace the feeling of looking at a painting with your own eyes, but makes art accessible like never before, providing a whole new perspective. While we don't know what our friends at Google's plans are to extend the experience--a mobile experience, or a new way to view sculpture are both things I'd personally like to see--I'm excited to see what comes next, and was honored to be a part of this groundbreaking first step.

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