What will the art museum of the future look like, and will technology hinder creativity? Dr. Bob Sumner from ETH Zurich has the answers. In this interview, he talks about how the Princely Collections, the private bank LGT and ETH Zurich have created an app that unites art and technology and rejuvenates 400-year-old works of art with the help of Augmented Reality.
First of all, what is Augmented Reality (AR)?
AR is experienced when we take digital content – or any kind of visual data such as graphics and animations – and insert that content into the real world. In other words, we merge the digital world with the world around us. This can be accomplished in several ways. One is to add digital content directly to the camera on a smartphone – which, when you look at the screen, can make it appear as if a figure is standing in front of you, for example.
Do you always need a screen to experience AR?
Not necessarily – at least not in the traditional sense of a screen. One option I find very exciting is the use of see-through devices such as glasses, which I believe are the future of AR. They enable you to see the digital content in a way that blends very naturally into the world around you, without looking at a screen. It won’t be long before this becomes a ubiquitous part of our lives.
Dr. Bob Sumner says: “With AR, you can tell stories about the artwork and its background”
You use AR to promote art. How did the project with the Princely Collections come into being?
I lead the ETH Game Technology Centre, where we explore the role of game technology in science and education. One of our core areas of research is AR. I gave a talk at TEDxZurich in 2016 about our work in this area. One of the examples I showed on stage featured a painting. Christof Buri, who heads Group Marketing at LGT, was in the audience and contacted me afterwards. He asked if we could take this a step further and develop something for the Princely Collections, which belong to the Princely Family of Liechtenstein – the owners of LGT. They have been passionate art collectors for over 400 years.
AR apps present digital content in a way that blends very naturally into the world around you
You used AR to enhance pieces from the Princely Collections?
Yes, exactly. You can now see, for example, how Rubens’ daughter ages over the years, how a painting was restored and painted over, or if a painting contains a bird, you can see it fly. You can find the MAG/NET app for this on the Apple Store and Google Play.
Will AR apps be art museums’ ‘audio guides’ of the future?
Not only can AR replace audio guides, it can do much more to enhance the experience. With an audio guide, you listen to stories about paintings, but the experience is very isolating. There’s no interaction. With AR, you can tell stories about the artwork and its background, as well as add visual content and animations, highlight information about different aspects of paintings, show step-by-step how it was painted, collected or restored. AR makes it possible for the viewer to have an interactive dialogue with the painting.
How will art museums change if AR becomes part of the way we experience art?
My hope is that art museums will become more popular and more engaging. For example, AR makes it possible for anybody to enhance art with AR. Just like you can upload a video with YouTube, anyone can add content to a painting that represents their own interpretation of the piece. I think AR is an opportunity not only for museum curators, but also for visitors to personally interpret art.
“Not only can AR replace audio guides, it can do much more to enhance the experience”
What is your response to critics who say that AR prevents us from looking at art directly and independently?
One of the projects that we worked on is called “Augmented Creativity”. We’ve also published a scientific paper about it. We proved that AR doesn’t have to compete with the real world. Instead, you can use AR and the power and popularity of smartphones to redirect attention to the real world. AR can help you focus more on what’s in front of you, enhance your engagement and your understanding – and what you take home from a visit to a museum.
Do you consider your work mainly scientific and technological or are you and your team artists too?
I’d say we’re half and half. My background is computer science and we have other researchers and engineers on the team, but we also have two fantastic digital artists who contribute immensely to what we do. Something like this can never be either/or. That’s part of the magic and makes it so compelling.
LGT is a leading international private banking and asset management group that has been fully controlled by the Princely House of Liechtenstein for over 80 years. The company employs over 3600 people who work out of more than 20 locations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. LGT offers tailored investment advice and strategic wealth planning for wealthy private individuals, companies, private foundations and institutional clients. As the family office of the Princely House of Liechtenstein, the bank has longstanding experience in structuring and managing sizeable assets.