Google has a new camera, and like everything Google does, it’s big. Really big, although not in the way you might think. It’s Google’s new Art Camera, a portable camera made to capture gigapixel-resolution images of paintings, prints, and drawings, with a detail so fine you can see the texture of individual brush strokes on a canvas, or even the imperfections in the stitches that make up that canvas.
“Zooming into these images,” says Google Cultural Institute engineer Ben St. John in a blog post, “is the closest thing to walking up to the real thing with a magnifying glass.”
Gigapixel images are built rather than captured whole. The camera moves incrementally, capturing a patchwork of images while zoomed in, and the images are stitched together to make one image of a billion pixels. “You need time, highly specialized and expensive equipment, and only a few people in the world can do the job,” says St. John. “In the first five years of the Google Cultural Institute, we’ve been able to share about 200 gigapixel images.”
So Google did what it always does. It automated the procedure. The new Art Camera reduces the time taken to capture an artwork from one day down to less than an hour. In addition, the camera is more portable, meaning that it can be easily sent on tour and used by museums and galleries around the world to digitize their artworks. Google is sending out 20 of these cameras, free, to do the job.
Seeing an artwork on the screen isn’t as good as seeing it in real life, but it’s certainly better than not seeing it at all, or seeing a crappy, low-res web image with the colors all wrong. And the museums also benefit, because they now have a copy that can be used for study and that functions as a kind of body-double for the original, allowing anyone to get in really close without any risk of damage.
Google has just made available the first 1,000 works from its collection in a project called the Google Cultural Institute. You can browse by collections, which organizes the works by physical location, or you can dig in by artist, media type, date, and other parameters. And of course, because it’s Google, you can also search. Pro tip: try it on a device with a hi-res Retina display, like an iPad. The detail really is incredible. Check it out, but beware—you might lose half a day to this thing.