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Google made an insanely high-res camera to preserve great works of art

Google made an insanely high-res camera to preserve great works of art

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In its first five years, the Google Cultural Institute scanned and archived 200 works of art in super-high-resolution gigapixel images. Now in just the past few months, it has managed to scan another 1,000.

The sudden expansion is thanks to a new camera developed by Google, simply called the Art Camera. It's designed to be far simpler to use than other camera setups, making it easier for museums and other institutions to start digitizing the art and documents in their collection. And critically, it's also much faster.

"The capture time has been reduced drastically," says Marzia Niccolai, technical program manager at the Cultural Institute. "Previously it could take almost a day to capture an image. To give you an idea, now if you have a one meter by one meter painting, it would take 30 minutes."

The Art Camera's capture of Signac's "The Port of Rotterdam." (Image credit: Google Cultural Institute / Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

After a few years of work, Google has built 20 units of the Art Camera and is lending them out for digitization. The camera works like this: it's set up in front of a wall where a painting is hung; its operator then points the camera at each edge of the image; once the camera knows how big of a space it's working with, it'll set off to work, automatically moving inch by inch, taking extreme closeups. Those closeups are then sent off to Google's servers to be turned into a single gigapixel file, ready to look at just a few hours later.

Prior to the Art Camera, either the Cultural Institute or the organizations it worked with had to pay to bring in a third party with image-scanning equipment. Now that Google has its own cameras, the process also becomes much cheaper. It isn't charging organizations that want to use the camera, encouraging them to take advantage of it. Niccolai says that the Cultural Institute has already lent it out to organizations across the globe, including in Brazil, India, and Hong Kong.

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(Image credit: Google Cultural Institute)

The Art Camera has some critical limitations, however. While it's a simple way to archive something mostly flat — like a painting — it can't handle 3D objects or anything particularly large. For that, Google will still have to bring in other tech.

The new scans are available at the Cultural Institute's website. Among them, you'll find works from Monet, O'Keeffe, and Van Gogh, alongside other well-known names.

The Art Camera's capture of Monet's "Spring in Vethuil." (Image credit: Google Cultural Institute / Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

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