In the five years since Google launched Art Project in early 2011, it captured around 200 ultra-high resolution images of artworks from around the world. Keen to kick things up a notch, the firm has captured five times that number this year alone, courtesy of a new gadget it calls the "Art Camera."
Art Project is a strand of the Google Cultural Institute (GCI), which allows web users to view exhibits and collections from museums and archives online. Among the GCI's recent other works have been the addition of New York's Guggenheim Museum to Street View and a 360-degree virtual tour of the Sydney Opera House.
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The "gigapixel images" produced by Art Project are published on the GCI website. Each image comprises over a billion pixels and allows viewers to pan and zoom around to explore it in very high levels of detail. It's possible to see individual brush-strokes up close and then to zoom out and see how they all knit together. Indeed, Google says the images can reveal details invisible to the naked eye.
Google also says, however, that capturing gigapixel images requires "highly specialized and expensive equipment" and that "only a few people in the world can do the job." So to make matters easier, it went about building its own camera that is tailored specifically for the job.
The Art Camera is designed to capture gigapixel images faster and more easily than was previously possible, as well as to be portable so as to be taken around the world to different museums and galleries. It has a robotic system that automatically steers the camera from detail to detail in an artwork. Laser and sonar technologies, meanwhile, are used to ensure the camera is correctly focused on each brushstroke, with the latter using high frequency sound to measure distance.
The process means that artworks can be captured for detailed examination without moving them or exposing them to unnecessary risk. Once all the details of an artwork are captured, the thousands of shots taken by the Art Camera are stitched together into one single image.
Google has released the first thousand ultra-high resolution images of artworks produced by the art camera, including works from Pissarro, Signac, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet. It says a fleet of Art Cameras will be sent to institutions around the world for free to continue documenting artworks.
The video below provides an introduction to the project.