Leading Smithsonian Art Lovers Into VR

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

To digitally capture and render art-filled rooms inside the Smithsonian museum in intricate detail, the creators of SAAM VR turned to leading-edge computer technologies.

Inside the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the famous painting “Aurora Borealis” by Frederic Edwin Church depicts a glowing red sky, but unlike most 5-by-7-foot canvas paintings, this piece of art pulls visitors inside the celestial scene.

Virtual reality (VR) headsets let people look and move around the majestic, colorful setting, giving them sensations of being there.

The immersive painting is one of many artistic VR experiences at SAAM. Visitors to the Washington, D.C. museum can now experience the full east wing of the Smithsonian in VR, complete with some unexpected twists and surprises.

Wearing a VR headset, virtual museum-goers can immerse themselves in SAAM’s permanent collection — whether they’re in Cleveland or Katmandu, said Peter Martin, the project’s lead creative director and producer from VALIS Studios.

“SAAM VR is our proof of concept for virtualizing the museum experience,” said Martin.

When most people think about VR, the first thing that comes to mind is gaming.

But according to Kumar Chinnaswamy, director of commercial VR in Intel’s Client Computing Group, commercial uses of VR will account half of the market as soon as the next five years.

He sees a growing number of commercial applications for VR in areas like education, retail and transportation. Goldman Sachs estimates the market for VR and augmented reality (AR) could grow to $128 billion by 2025.

“The tech can reduce product design risks, offer new ways to engage customers and enable immersive training methods,” said Chinnaswamy.

SAAM sees the benefits of bringing its treasures to VR, and Martin’s team is helping the museum break new ground in the digital world.

Currently, the largest museums only display about 5 percent of their collection, leaving a great majority of the world’s fine art inaccessible to the public.

A 2016 survey of major museums found that nearly half of Pablo Picasso’s paintings are not hanging on the walls, but are instead stored in museum archives. That’s not counting art that has been irrevocably lost to war and disaster, like Caravaggio’s “Saint Matthew and the Angel.”

SAAM has over 47,000 works of art, but almost 90 percent remain hidden away in storage. Creating extremely high-resolution renders of these hidden gems could allow people to experience them from anywhere in the world.

SAAM VR efforts began in 2016 when Martin and his team got special access to the museum for five straight days. They brought an arsenal of equipment, including high-speed cameras, ultra-high resolution cameras and a panoply of laser scanners for measuring the exact dimensions of the building.

Aurora Borealis
Image courtesy of SAAM.

“It’s almost like a CSI crime investigation,” said Martin. “We had to scan and photograph every square inch of every wall. It’s a very meticulous process.”

The team captured selected areas of the museum and several art pieces with the highest degree of precision. They began by taking approximately 2,000 photos of each room.

The team pieced together the photos like a puzzle to build a replica of the museum into a VR experience. Everything built in VR needed the same shape, texture and form as in real life to create the most authentic experience for VR users.

That’s easier said than done, according to Raj Puran, who manages commercial VR and AR experiences at Intel.

“That’s not something that can be done simply today. It takes a whole lot of effort and compute power to make that happen,” said Puran.

The project went according to plan onsite at the museum, but during post-production, Martin quickly found himself painted into a corner.

For Johannes Saam, a senior creative developer at Framestore VR, the VR process had generated an extraordinary amount of data. The team’s industry-grade computers were having trouble handling the extra load. At that rate, it would have taken an excruciatingly long time to do the job — around three months, by Saam’s estimate.

Statue at SAAM.
Image courtesy of SAAM.

To complicate matters, time was of the essence. The finished project was launching at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January 2017.

With the deadline only a month away, Martin called for reinforcements.

“We need some heavy computing power,” he recalled saying.

He turned to Intel, sponsor of the SAAM VR project, for help. He got a custom-built PC equipped with the fastest chip commercially available, an Intel Broadwell-E Core i7-6950X 10-core processor. Even more cutting edge was the computer’s Intel Optane memory, an extremely fast storage technology that was not available on the market at the time.

The desktop computer cut a laborious 24 hours worth of ordering images down to only six hours.

Greg Downing, president of xRez Studio, which was responsible for turning thousands of museum pictures into an interactive experience, said the new system improved his speed threefold, helping him meet the tight deadline.

Martin said faster computing power has broad implications for VR. Because of the massive time commitment, today’s VR creators are wary of trying to preserve real places in VR.

Path of VR through museum.
Image courtesy of SAAM.

“For VR to thrive, it has to become faster and cheaper to make,” said Martin. “Then there will be more experiences.”

As one of the first room-scale VR experiences of its kind, SAAM VR is letting museum-goers take a truly immersive dive into the arts and history. It’s an exciting glimpse at what the future holds.

As computing and VR technologies advances, immersive museum experiences will become the norm.

Editor’s note: Rob Kelton contributed to this story.

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