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Augmented-reality app enhances Cantor exhibition

Augmented reality -- computer-generated information superimposed over a real-world experience -- can be applied everywhere from video games (hello, Pokemon Go) to academia, and the art world is no exception. At Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, an exhibition involving a homegrown app called Art++ is allowing visitors to gain an enhanced understanding of a group of carefully curated works.

The nine pieces selected for this initial Art++-enriched exhibition (which includes a West African textile, European paintings and American pop art) may not have much in common at first glance, but curatorial assistant Maria del Carmen Barrios-Giordano said that all of them were chosen for their "interesting storytelling" potential. It was important, she said, that the museum not just try "tech for tech's sake" but present a compelling, innovative offering that would really allow viewers to immerse themselves deeper into the art. The museum team also purposely chose works that would not otherwise be on display, shedding light on some hidden gems of the collection.

Art++ was developed as a collaboration between the museum and graduate students from Stanford's department of electrical engineering, and received funding from The Brown Institute for Media Innovation (a partnership between Stanford's School of Engineering and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York.)

"We are an academic museum, we belong to Stanford, and we have a lot of contact with campus, but it's mostly with the art history department," Barrios-Giordano said. "This is sort of our part of the continuum in which we, as a museum, try to reach out to the wider Stanford community."

The resulting exhibition -- titled "Art++ Technology and Art Lab" -- has "lab" in its name for a reason: Its main purpose is experimentation.

"It's been really tricky, because the engineers are coming at this project from the point of view of research, and the museum comes to the project with the point of view of making something available to the public, a useable product," Barrios-Giordano said.

When museum-goers enter the small, second-floor Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery, they find a selection of tablets at the entrance, along with posted instructions on how to use them. The software installed on the tablet scans the image seen on the screen via the device's camera, then matches it to the corresponding object in the A++ database and provides an overlay. After following the simple prompts and holding up the tablet in front of John Varley, the Younger's painting "Entrance to the Hall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra, Granada," for instance, the tablet screen comes alive with a panorama image of the painting's real setting in Spain, which shifts along with the motion of the screen.

"With a (printed) label you can say, 'this painting was created in this particular spot' but you can't really say, 'hey, this is actually the space.' Sometimes pointing out the actual space is interesting in and of itself because of context. That, to us, is valuable," she said.

Pointing the device at Caligo's "Tribune of Buontalenti, Uffizi, Florence," which depicts a famous Italian gallery, allows the viewer to pull out isolated details from the painting, then learn more about them. And using the app, viewers can also see what the faded Caligo painting would look like if it were restored to its original colors, in all its bold, red glory. Museums don't always have the funds, time or ability to devote to the risky field of conservation, Barrios-Giordano explained, but using technology to digitally restore pieces lets viewers get a glimpse of what it might look like, without actually needing to touch the original.

The technology also allows the viewer to see the full range of works in a series instantly, even when they're not physically present. Just one of Andy Warhol's large screenprints of Mao Tse-Tung -- the Chinese leader set against an orange background -- is hanging on the wall at the Art++ exhibition, but by using the tablet, one can quickly scroll through overlays of all ten in the series, creating a virtual rainbow-hued flip book of Mao portraits.

"That is helpful, especially for a place like us that doesn't have a lot of wall space. It gives you greater freedom when you are constricted by space or production costs or any of these sorts of things," Barrios-Giordano said. And while the Cantor Arts Center currently only offers its content in English, she said that hypothetically, A++ and programs like it could make providing translations (or updating any content) much easier and quicker, without the need for printing. Augmented reality, she said, "allows museums much more flexibility when it comes to displaying works of art and figuring out how to tell stories."

The A++ software platform itself is open-source, and the team will demonstrate the app at the Museum Computer Network conference in November. It's not yet known if or how A++ will be used at Stanford in the future, although a collaboration with the new David Rumsey Map Center at the Green Library is under consideration.

The current exhibition opened in July and will run through late September. Museum staff are tracking user activity via logs in the tablets, which indicate how many people are using the program and whether people are finding some objects more interesting than the others. They're also gathering feedback from conversations with patrons who've tried out the technology on visits and have discovered something of a generation gap in terms of its popularity.

"One thing that we've noticed is that children take to it very easily. They like it," Barrios-Giordano said. "Our older visitors sometimes have more difficulty adapting to it."

So far, around one sixth to one seventh of Cantor visitors are engaging with Art++, an impressive number, said Barrios-Giordano, for an exhibition that's "very small and in a space that doesn't tend to get all that much foot traffic," she said. "I'm very happy with the response."

What: "Art++ Technology and Art Lab"

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford.

When: Through Sept. 26, Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open Thursday until 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Cantor Arts Center

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