SIGGRAPH is billed as a computer graphics and animation conference for techies, industry insiders, and a few interdisciplinary, outlying artists. But squeezed in amongst the rigging demos and VR experiences are real opportunities for advancements in programming and outreach for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs). As representatives of the museum sector and digital art history, we went to SIGGRAPH to find them.
From an art gallery comprised entirely of Latin American works to a Kinect camera rigged to archive dance moves for 3D archival printing, SIGGRAPH showcased a digital future that felt both inclusive and expansive. Throughout the conference, little—and big—disruptions in the status quo of arts, entertainment, and cultural heritage offered glimpses of GLAMs’ digital future. From a call for wider representation exhibitions to virtual reality experiences that put you in the middle of a painful coming-out, SIGGRAPH presented a technologically advanced, often utopic vision of the future.
Here are the five innovations that caught our eye as most relevant to the nonprofit arts sphere.
Open vs. Proprietary Data: Michelangelo’s David in VR
Clack, clack, clack, clack. It sounded and felt like I was on a rollercoaster, but I was actually riding rising scaffolding in virtual reality (VR). And instead of tracks in front of me, there was Michelangelo’s David.
As I circled him, tales of his creation—triggered by the direction of my gaze—sounded in my ears. I could see the chisel marks around his brow, and the marks where Michelangelo used his bow to drill into David’s hair.
Il Gigante unites gaming and cultural heritage. An eighteen-year passion project of the lead technical animator at Epic Games, Chris Evans, the VR David is constructed from data collected from a 1999 laser scan of the famous statue. Thanks to Evans and his team—and the Italian government—“you can experience the statue only in the way that the people who cleaned it recently were able to experience it.”
Sadly, though, only those at SIGGRAPH 2017 are able to have that solitude with David. Epic Games alone was entrusted with the data, and the data will go right back to the Italian government now that SIGGRAPH has ended. According to Evans, this attitude is indicative of the problems museums and their collaborators face when working with images in any form.
“I have a lot of experience working trying to make cool experiences like this,” he told me, “and it’s a lot easier if it’s a museum that feels that it’s government funded and that the items in the museum are the public’s and photography is allowed,” he told me.
Cultural heritage professionals are no strangers to copyright and rights issues. VR just adds new complications to the ongoing challenges of securing long-term digital rights. “It’s a very uncomfortable conversation for any museum that really wants to be careful about who has access to its holdings,” said Evans.
As to what will happen in the future? Evans thinks VR is rife with opportunity for improving access to and experience of collections holdings—so long as institutions get used to the idea of sharing.
Arts Edutainment: Ghost Paint
Another virtual reality project from the commercial sector, Ghost Paint allows people to spray-paint a virtual mural.
Once strapped into the headset, artists choose from a selection of tools and colors—from spray cans to airbrushes with a comprehensive color wheel—to paint their digital masterpiece as they would on a wall IRL. It’s an obvious audience-engagement opportunity for art museums.
Shane Caudle, inventor of Ghost Paint, was inspired by the idea of creating a digital art medium that allows people to make art in the most natural way possible, short of doing it the old-fashioned way. Need a way to get people physically and mentally engaged? Have them strap on the headset, color in or paint a piece inspired by a museum’s decorative arts or photography collections, and then print it out to take home. Bonus points for using a setup that allows participants to watch—in real time—what their friend is painting in VR.
If implemented properly, I think Ghost Paint could be a game-changer for edutainment in the cultural heritage sector.
Intuitive Architecture: AR Mail from Harbin
It’s literally magic. That’s what multiple people said when they saw the video of AR Mail from Harbin in action. When viewed from an iPhone or iPad screen, a highly realistic cathedral springs up from the face of a virtually blank postcard, only imprinted with black and white architectural plans.
A tool from the realm of augmented reality dreamt up by architecture students at MIT, AR Mail allows tourists to mail postcards to family or friends that allow them to—with the right app—view animated, 3D models of a building.
The project is a response to the difficulty non-architects face in envisioning a building simply from looking at traditional models and plans.
“What we tried to do,” Woongki Sung, an MIT PhD candidate on the AR Mail team, told us as we waved the card in front of the iPad, “was to incorporate the 3D modeled section and the plans so that you can have a kind of intuitive experience of architecture.”
Incredibly, the model isn’t made using expensive 3D scanning. It was made using photogrammetry (the process of stitching together many, many photographs to create a comprehensive 3D model), which is much cheaper and better at representing textures than 3D scanning.
For now, the AR Mail team only has postcards for the Saint Sophia Cathedral in China. But the possibilities are endless, both for in-gallery and promotional use. Can you imagine receiving a virtual model of the Bamiyan Buddhas in the mail? Or a side-by-side comparison of concert halls in an architectural exhibition?
Tech-Mediated Human Interaction: Digital Playground
What if you used technology to help people interact like they did before technology? The project known as Digital Playground tries to answer this question. The team created a “human-centered experience” of visual projections mapped to a wall. These projections respond when participants throw foam balls at them—meaning that participants can blast an animated astronaut out of his space ship, deter meteorites from colliding with the moon, or team up to push the astronaut into the moon’s orbit.
Imagine children pushing cave paintings around on a replica of a cave wall, or curatorial students rearranging paintings in a virtual gallery. From the BlikBlik festival of light in Pilsen to the Ceramic Art Museum in Beijing, Digital Playground has made such tech-mediated human interactions possible.
The central question of the project reminded me of the debate over skeumorphism in digital design. As we move forward with digital technology, what pre-digital experiences and interfaces do we want to carry with us into the digital realm? It’s a quandary pertinent to GLAMs as they redefine not only how to engage with audiences, but also how to encourage audiences to engage with one another.
Diversity and Disruption: Latin America and Technology
This was the first time in SIGGRAPH’s 35 years that its Art Gallery was entirely devoted to Latin American artists—a synchronous, but unplanned parallel to PST: LA/LA opening this September.
In the gallery, works by Latin American artists told a story of appropriation of technology, and, as curator Paula Gaetano-Adi told me, of an acknowledgment that technology is everywhere. It was the first time in the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery’s history that the show was comprised entirely of Latin American art. For these artists, technology is just another type of paint, clay, or stone.
“There is no more distinction between art and technology,” Gaetano-Adi declared. “Artists have always used the medium that’s available to them.” And n a very meta, move, they’re using their medium to critique it.
“You cannot help but be critical, especially if you are Latin American, because there is a belief that developing countries do not have a firm grasp on technology,” she said. Gaetano-Adi’s show Unsettled Artifacts: Technological Speculations from Latin America was a response to the ongoing exclusion of Latin Americans not only from the mainstream galleries of the GLAM world, but from dialogues about technology as well.
For her, giving this group of media artists institutional support was a very different kind of technological disruption, and one the GLAM world sorely needs.