Augmented Reality, Gadget or New Standard for Museum Visitor Experience?

Check the initiative from the Art Gallery of Ontario


When most people think of technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality they tend to think of video games, but there are plenty of other ways to experience these modern mediums ranging from QR codes scanned on your phone to art installations in galleries. An example of the latter is on display now through December 3 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In an effort that combines cutting edge technology and some of its best known portraits, the Art Gallery of Ontario is launching ReBlink, an exhibit that uses augmented reality to lets visitors see modern-day updates to paintings. In short It provides a vision of what the subject of the painting would be doing if the painting were made today.

Viewers just have to download the ReBlink app and point their mobile devices at select paintings — mainly housed in the Jackman Gallery — and they’ll see a modernized version of the painting in front of them.

For example, take The Marchesa Casati, one of the AGO’s best known portraits. With the app, the red-haired aristocrat is holding a selfie stick, like a modern-day celebutante.



Alex Mayhew and Ian Kelso, his co-founder at mixed reality studio Impossible Things, are at the forefront of this initiative. The augmented reality installation “remixes,” in Kelso’s words, historic pieces of art, updating them with the modern technologies and products that drive our daily lives.

“There is an issue in museums of people walking past paintings and, when people stop, the average time is 15 seconds. With the Instagram generation, with mobile phones, that problem is getting worse and worse,” explains Mayhew.”

“We’re trying to get people to stop, pause, have a look, use the intervention of understanding the paintings that they may not otherwise have a connection with. We want to increase engagement levels through technology rather than making the situation worse.”



It’s true there is an absolutely real sense of magic to seeing each painting come to life. The augmented work is strongly rooted in the original, but it is “modernized” in a deliberate way to give visitors a new layer of context, one that they can perhaps better identify with.

This initiative will certainly make the museum more engaging, namely for younger people. Still, it’s ironic that a venue meant to make people step away from their hectic smartphone push the same people to use it.

The Augmented Reality is a powerful tool available to museums and this technology is undoubtedly going to become more and more present in cultural venues, however the way to use it still has to be found to make it go beyond the role of simple gadget.


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