Google is famous for enabling its employees to work on “20 percent projects”—some 80 percent of their time gets spent on whatever Google wants them to do, but 20 percent of the time they can do what they like. Some of Google’s well-known products—like Gmail, Google Talk, Google News, and dare-we-mention Orkut—started off as 20 percent projects, and today Google has added another high-profile effort to the mix: Google Art Project, which takes the company’s vaunted Street View technology and applies it to art museums and galleries, offering virtual walk-throughs of 17 museums around the world—including up-close views of some of the world’s great art.
“It started when a small group of us who were passionate about art got together to think about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible—not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but to a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close,” wrote Google’s Amit Sood.
Google Art Project offers access to 17 world-famous art museums, including The Hermitage, the National Gallery in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and many others. And users aren’t just able to step through virtual walking tours of the spaces: Art Project also offers brushstroke-level detail views of more than 1,000 pieces of art, 17 of which (one per location) were captured using “gigapixel” technology. According to Google, each art image has over 7 billion pixels, which makes them about 1,000 times more detailed than a typical digital camera picture. Of course, even on a high-bandwidth connection that resolution would be impossible to manage, so Google serves up lower-rez versions, increasing the detail as users zoom in.
Users navigate around museums following the path of a picture-taking “trolley,” rather than the large cumbersome vans Google drives up and down the streets of cities. The tours currently handle more than 350 rooms in the museums, and users can take advantage of a clickable annotation feature so users can quickly move from their location to individual artworks, as well as access info panels that tell about a particular piece. (Google has also hooked up the gallery interiors to Street View in Google Maps, if you ever want to walk inside from the street without standing in line.) Users can also create their own artwork sets, where they save particular views of artworks along with comments and share them with others.
Google says they hope to add more museums to the project going forward.