Google unveils a gigapixel ‘Art Camera’ that lets you view paintings down to the brushstrokes

Google’s Cultural Institute, the company’s initiative to preserve the world’s culture and history by bringing it online, has this morning unveiled a new project aimed at allowing web users the ability to view art up close – down to the very brushstrokes. Google had invented a new camera it’s dubbing the “Art Camera,” which is a custom-built, robotic camera capable of capturing gigapixel images quickly.

This camera is steered by a robotic system across the painting in question, taking hundreds or even thousands of high-resolution close-ups. To focus precisely, it uses both a laser and sonar system. The latter uses high-frequency sound to measure the distance of the artwork to better position itself. Yes, the camera hears like a bat does, Google points out.

Of course, capturing these images is only one feat – they then have to be assembled coherently. Google’s software is capable of stitching the images together to create a single image, it says.

These images are being shared online, so people can get as close to experiencing the art as possible, apart from viewing it in real life.

Many of the details found in paintings, after all, are those that you only see when you view the art in person by walking up to the canvas. There, you can see things like the way Impressionists combine dabs and dashes of paint to form an image that becomes clearer as you step back, or uncover hidden items like a hidden signature.

port of rotterdam

Google has already shared around 200 gigapixel images online during the Google Cultural Institute’s first five years, but the process before was slower, and involved highly specialized and expensive equipment, as well as highly trained individuals capable of doing the job. Now it has a smart robotic camera that can do the job instead, and much more quickly. Instead of a day, it could take just 30 minutes to scan a painting.

That means Google will be able to greatly increase the number of these images made available to web surfers. In fact, it has already scanned another 1,000 images over the past few months with its new cameras. A small fleet of the cameras are also being loaned out to art museums for free. Not only will it help to bring more art online in detail, it can also help museums share those works that are fragile, sensitive to light and humidity, and can’t always be on display.

Today, the company is sharing the first thousand images it captured with the new cameras on the Google Cultural Institute’s website, where you’ll find art from Pissarro, Signac, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and others from museums across Australia, India, the Netherlands, Brazil and elsewhere.

The camera is also being used to bring collections of related art together in an interesting way. For example, if you wanted to view Van Gogh’s six famous portraits of the Roulin family up close, Google explains you would have to travel to museums in the Netherlands, L.A. and New York. But with the Art Camera, Google captured the Portrait of Armand Roulin, which it has then placed alongside the rest of the family all on one web page.

Below, the art camera in action: