Brave New Museum

Computer science researchers at the University of Washington and Cornell University have announced a new system of powerful graphics algorithms that will create three-dimensional renderings of buildings, neighborhoods, and potentially even entire cities. Fittingly the inventors went for the gold and named the system PhotoCity. Like its precursor, Microsoft’s Photosynth, the service makes it possible for users to upload collections of photos that can then be viewed in a quasi three-dimensional montage with a Web browser. Pushing the earlier image technology that used dozens or hundreds of pictures to create 3-D spaces, PhotoCity can use tens of thousands or even millions of photos and transform them into what is rather poetically called, ‘a dense point cloud.”

As museums of all kinds begin to re-configure themselves for a virtual audience the idea that they could entirely exist—or appear to exist—as a 3D virtual version of their physical galleries, archives, and storage units is an intriguing idea. Museums and research centers of all disciplines and sizes each day make photographs of their collections for a variety of uses. Object photography is a special genre that often requires an entire team of photographers. Holographic imagery is already used in some cases to document objects that are particularly valuable or fragile. But now, imagine photographs of objects and museum exhibitions assembled into in a “dense point cloud” of virtual experience. In her essay for click! art historian Dorothy Moss thinks about how photographs of art in the late nineteenth century spread an appreciation of art to a wider public and in the process created a desire for the commodity of art. The worry then—as it surely will be now in any PhotoCity museum—was who controls where that reproduction will appear. (Think of the postcard you just bought and put on the refrigerator. Is it doing justice to the spirit of Degas?)

Screenshot of the PhotoCity game, with reqests for photos of the Smithsonian Castle visible.

What will the experience of millions of photographs shaped into a 3D world and delivered to our living rooms be like? What are the different ways that museums can accommodate the virtual visitor and the physical visitor? An experience that might start online, continue to the physical museum, and continue again online is one possibility.  Using the photographs of real space visitors to create virtual space is another. Researchers and the public are already using camera phones to play a PhotoCity game at Cornell and have made a start at capturing the buildings (including the Smithsonian Castle) on the National Mall.  How many photographs, I wonder, would it take to make a Smithsonian?

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