Google's attention to preserving and sharing artwork has always been admirable, and its new, updated Arts & Culture app for iOS and Android continues this work. The app first launched last year, but was little more than a wrapper for the company's Cultural Institute webpage. Its redesign makes it easier to use on mobile devices, while also adding new features such as support for virtual reality via Google Cardboard.
As before, the app lets you explore artwork by everyday objects (glasses or apples or shoes, for example), as well as different mediums and movements. There's historical content, too, with generously illustrated articles on topics from the Moon landings to the achievements of Nelson Mandela. (For readers of a certain age, this will all be pleasingly reminiscent of Microsoft Encarta — sadly without MindMaze). There are also new daily articles on select topics and users can browse a section on "wonders," which covers geographical locations of interest, from the Great Barrier Reef to the castles of France's Loire Valley.
There are also two big additions to the app. The first is a new Art Recognizer tool that lets you hold your phone up in front of real-life artworks and retrieve more info on the painter and artist. It's currently only supported in a handful of museums (including London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC), but Google says it plans to roll out support for other institutions "around the world." If it works as advertised, it could be a great boon for museum visitors, offering useful information without a guidebook.
The other new feature for the app is virtual reality content supported by Google Cardboard. Unfortunately, while this would seem a natural fit for such a project, Google's support is a bit hit and miss.
good idea, shame about the implementation
In a virtual reality tour of London's Dulwich Picture Gallery, for example, you start outside the museum, and push the dedicated Cardboard button to move through its rooms. However, there's no way of selecting your route: you just click to advance, and tap to go back. And while you can find out information on specific artworks, there's no way to actually take a closer look at the paintings. And as far as we could tell during our time with the app, Google hasn't put all the new Cardboard content in one place — it's up to you to discover it while browsing museums and sites. That's an inconvenience only, but it does seem like Google isn't making the most of its VR content.
That aside, today's update is a welcome one for the Art & Culture apps, with Google offering more avenues for people around the world to start learning and enjoying famous artworks. And maybe it's a good thing the VR content isn't all that — after all, you still want people to actually visit museums and art galleries, too.