“The Big Bang, a moment when a tiny speck of energy expanded, giving birth to space and time,” says the sonorous-sounding Tilda Swinton right into my earphones. How did the universe come about? She explains, in an Augmented Reality-powered app that lets you hold planets in your palms.
Google Arts & Culture, the platform which exhibits an eclectic variety of classic works in the field of visual arts, has unveiled ‘Once Upon a Try’. Google worked with over 110 renowned institutions across 23 countries to digitise over 400 interactive collections as part of this exhibition.
- NASA’s Visual Universe: Explore NASA’s archive of 127,000 historic photographs, driven by Google Machine Learning.
- CERN’s Large Hadron Collider: The largest machine on the planet, through Street View.
- Travel through India’s outdoor astronomical observatory, the Jantar Mantar , through Street View.
- Shrink down to the size of an atom to discover the latest advances in nano and biotechnology — in augmented reality, with the Deutsches Museum (DE)
- Brush up on your astrophysics in Virtual Reality with a selection of museums from around the globe through the Google Expeditions app.
These institutions don the garb of the curators, while Google provides the technology platform that allows the material to be uploaded, managed, and exhibited online. The framework for the exhibit, as expected by the institutes, is also devised by the tech giant.
This is a treasure trove, comprising not just art, but also inventions and discoveries curated in collaboration with CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), NASA and 100 other institutes and museums from around the globe. Once Upon A Try is possibly the largest freely-accessible collection of information highlighting important-yet-undiscovered creations in science. And one can explore this immensity from the comfort of their screens.
One rivetting exhibit is ‘Testing the Limits of Gunpowder’, a documentary exploring contemporary artist of Chinese origin, Cai Guo-Qiang and the ways in which he redefines gunpowder as a medium. For this project, he studies Da Vinci’s works and incorporates gunpowder into his existing works.
There is more than what meets the eye in this carefully-curated labyrinth. To find scientific concepts in the form of displays amid visual arts, is rare. But what exactly led to the inception of this project?
“Many of the cultural institutions we engage with, have amazing scientific collections. And there are so many artefacts through which you can learn about the tools that we take for granted, never realising that someone, somewhere thought about creating it,” Simon Rein, program manager, Google Arts & Culture writes. “We thought it would be fascinating to uncover this and maybe even inspire people to become creators themselves.”
But a project of this scale, is not devoid of challenges. “When you digitise art and culture, you still have a way to go to capture its meaning and significance and tell stories about them to a global audience.”
Attention to detail
“People love experiencing artwork in close detail,” says Simon. Which is why ‘Once Upon a Try’ is generously peppered with applications that make the art seem easily available to the browser. Simon continues, “We use 360º panoramic imagery, which can be easily adapted into virtual reality exhibitions that can be viewed using your phone and Google Cardboard.” Google Cardboard is the affordable and foldable VR headset made of cardboard.
They have also developed a high resolution ‘Art Camera’ which can capture ‘gigapixel’ images of 2-D artefacts. A gigapixel image is made of over one billion pixels and can bring out details invisible to the naked eye. Using laser and sonar to aid focusing, the Art Camera takes hundreds of close-up images that are then stitched together to create an intensely detailed whole. With the Big Bang exhibit, one can witness the birth of the universe in the palm of your hand, and experience its evolution right up to today in 360° Augmented Reality. This new AR app has been developed in collaboration with particle physicists from CERN. One can also join NASA astronauts Kathryn Sullivan and Charles Bolden in Virtual Reality, as they revisit the space shuttle Discovery and their mission to launch the Hubble space telescope into the orbit.
The Indian connect
We are not alien to prolific scientific inventions. Google feels the same way; in the platform, one can revisit the story of the first electronic computer developed in India, and join the journey of chess becoming a global game, learn about Ayurveda, and explore India’s contribution to medicine. The multimedia exhibits also provide an insight into the life of innovators like Professor Govind Swarup, a pioneer of radio astronomy, and Chewang Norphel, who creates artificial glaciers in Ladakh to combat climate change. With institutes like Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum joining hands, the platform garners attention to the lesser-known discoveries from India — and this is where Professor Govind comes into play.
“The exhibits track the radiophysics group of TIFR for the last 55 years. Govind Swarup had set up a small telescope in Kalyan, which used old radio dishes donated by Australia. He started looking for a site close to the equator for setting up a bigger telescope. The appropriate site was found in Ooty. It was constructed between 1966 and 1970. This telescope led to many discoveries,” explains Yogesh Wadadekar, of National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. This eventually led to the idea of Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), which was constructed from 1988 to 2000 about 80 kms north of Pune. In 2002, it was released as an international open access facility and has been running so, for the past 16 years. A movie documenting the ideating of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) process, and an exhibit showing the life and work of Professor Swarup using archival pictures and text, and video stories on the buildings of the Ooty Radio Telescope and the GMRT, are what NCRA-TIFR was created in collaboration with Google.
Digitising is key
Has Google faced any criticism for making iconic works easily available? Museums in India and in fact around the globe are implementing digital models as part of their strategies to preserve and promote their collection and our cultural heritage. Simon says, “About five to six years ago, the discussion was: should a museum go online and share its collection? Today the question is, ‘what is the best way to do it?’”
The use of mobile devices strapped with Internet, he says, has become a priority, and is higher than on desktop devices. Sometimes museums don’t have enough space to show their vast content, and this platform allows them to overcome this by putting up collections from their storage online. “That way, not only the users but other institutions also get to know of the hidden treasures and can contact them for further research and possible collaborations,” Simon concludes.