The art of making Google Art Project (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Last week, Google unveiled its effort to bring some of the greatest artworks to a global audience, Street View-style. One of the lead developers tells CNET how the project came to be.

Last week, Google unveiled Art Project, an effort to bring works from 17 of the great museums of the world to a global audience. Google

Last week, Google unveiled a Street View-esque project that brings viewers face to face with some of the greatest art on earth.

Known as Google Art Project, the initiative will give users remote access to the priceless paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts from 17 of the world's most famous museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, London's National Gallery and Tate Britain, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and others.

In a blog post announcing the effort, Amit Sood, head of the Google Art Project, explained that users will have initial access to at least 1,000 works from the 17 museums, including one from each institution that will be presented in high-resolution using "'gigapixel' photo-capturing technology."

The project is based, in part, Sood said, on Google's Street View technology.

Schematic

But Google didn't do this project on its own. Rather, it partnered with a company called Schematic, which helped integrate many of the technologies that together form Google Art Project, and which took on a lot of the heavy lifting in dealing with the various museums. Yesterday, Jason Brush, the executive vice president for user experience at Schematic, sat down for a 45 Minutes on IM interview about the effort, and talked about working with some of the greatest art collections ever put together, about collaborating with Googlers trying to do exciting things with their "20 percent" time, and about the challenges of building a powerful experience around what could be some people's first-ever interaction with some of the most important paintings in history.

Q: Thanks very much for joining me for this. I appreciate it. Maybe you could start by telling me what it felt like to learn you were going to be instrumental in bringing some of the world's greatest art to a global audience?
Jason Brush: First, I was awestruck by the idea itself, which the Googlers with whom we collaborated on the project had invented. It was a project that really reflects the full potential of what the Web can achieve, and is the sort of concept that got me interested in new media to begin with. I could just imagine a child at a public library, somewhere in the world, who might never be able to afford airfare to travel to these museums, and who might not even have access to high-quality reproductions in books, being able to wander the halls of the great museums that the site brings together. It was a real honor to be brought on board by Amit Sood, who led the project at Google.

For a lot of people, this could be their first-ever interaction with some of the world's great art, as you suggested above. How much pressure did you feel to make sure that their experience was a good one?
Brush: I've worked on projects before that were groundbreaking, for which there was a great deal of pressure to get the experience right--the site we built to broadcast the Beijing Olympics online, for example--but this was different. For some reason the pressure on this project was different--I'm sure for everybody involved. Partially, it was because of the restraints. It wasn't just a matter of putting up the artwork and making it accessible. There was also a lot of pressure to make sure that we weren't making any explicit curatorial decisions. An interface can of course say something specific in and of itself, and we worked very hard to make sure that we weren't imposing a point of view on the display of artwork.

Talk a little more about the pressure not to make explicit curatorial decisions. Why not, and how did you resist making decisions like that?
Brush: Well, one of the first issues we had to face was making sure that the site wasn't itself a meta-museum. The museums themselves have the cultural and civic onus to present the artworks in their collections in whatever way that's appropriate to their mission. We didn't want to usurp that. So, the pressure stemmed from not just making sure that the site was enjoyable and easy-to-use because of it's cultural value, but also because we needed to create a model that drew a clear distinction between the live, in-person museum-going experience--which we hope the site will encourage people to have--and the experience you get online. We were in essence creating a whole new model for viewing art, which was a great responsibility.

Tell me a great story about working with these museums?
Brush: At Schematic, we didn't work directly with the museums--the photography of the artworks and the capture of the Street View imagery was coordinated by Google, with the help of some other partners. So, we didn't have much interaction with the museums themselves.

The museums that are involved hadn't worked all together before on this kind of project. What was it like to help coordinate them working?
Brush: This was indeed one of the notable feats of the project--creating a forum that all the many institutions could participate in. This also was handled by the team at Google. So, while we weren't involved in the negotiations, we did make some design decisions vis-a-vis unique aggregation of content from many museums. For instance, on the home page, we chose to randomize which museum gets highlighted on load. We didn't want it always to be the museum at the top of the list.

From your perspective, how much does this collection miss having the Mona Lisa?
Brush: I think you could make the same statement about, say, Picasso's "Guernica," but I don't think that the site as a whole suffers per se from not having certain artworks. it's really up to the museums to decide what they want to make available. I hope the catalog expands, but I don't think that the achievement is diminished at all by the fact that it doesn't house every world famous painting. And of course, some artists' work--James Turrell, Richard Serra, Olafur Eliasson--needs to be experienced in person.

Talk about the future of the project. I assume, well, I hope, that more museums will be added. What's the story with expansion?
Brush: With expansion, I can't say. I haven't heard anything from Amit Sood, who is really the mastermind behind the project, about what's next.

It seems you had a full grab bag of Google APIs to integrate as part of this project. Did you have some say in which ones were included. And how did you choose which pieces?
Brush: The site indeed makes use of a huge range of Google APIs. The way we evaluated what APIs to use was to first design the experience, and then to see if an API was available that could achieve what we needed. As it happened, we were able to build the site pretty much entirely using publicly available APIs. The two pieces Schematic didn't build were the "microscope" viewer, which allows you to zoom into the artwork, and the customized version of Street View. Both of these were built by the team at Google--"certifiable geniuses" as our tech lead calls them--and then integrated into the UI framework we designed and built. So, as a whole, we were able to use the APIs pretty fluidly.

Can you talk about how the project presents the artworks in both Street View mode and directly--what were some of the issues involved in deciding how to do that?
Brush: This was the trickiest part of the whole site to build. We knew that we needed to load in the separate viewer to zoom into the artwork, and so we created links within Street View that you could click on to load the image viewer. The challenge here was twofold: first, placing the links reliably vis-a-vis the artwork in Street View--we didn't want them overlapping the images--and then knowing which artwork to link them to. In the end, we built a custom tool to map artworks in Street View to their gigapixel counterparts. But much of the mapping had to be done manually, which was quite painstaking.

Also, in normal Street View, head-up displays are normalized. Here, we needed to strike a balance between making the links readable, while avoiding them distracting from the gallery experience. To do this, we built a system to assign different sized links inside a gallery, depending on its decor. More ornate rooms got bigger, bolder icons; minimalist rooms got smaller ones.

Last question, and it's my standard closer. I like to do these interviews in IM for several reasons: First, I get a perfect transcript. And also, my subject can be more thoughtful and articulate than maybe they would be on the phone or in person. But finally, it's because IM allows for multitasking. So, tell me: what else were you doing while we were doing this?
Brush: Basking in the sunlight of our mercifully mild Los Angeles winter.

 

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