Art Gallery mobile app upgrades enhance access, interaction with artwork

Significant technological advances through a mobile app by the GVSU Art Gallery will expand both people's access to viewing art and their perspective when interacting with artwork.

Art Gallery officials plan an open-source release this summer of the framework of the mobile app, Art at GVSU, which was first developed more than 10 years ago and is continually refined with campus partners, in particular students, said Nathan Kemler, director of GVSU Galleries and Collections.

In addition, a new augmented reality mobile app feature set to be released in September allows users to deepen their understanding of a piece of art through digital enhancements, Kemler said. He said this project helped inspire, and helps support, the Grand Path initiative announced in April by President Philomena V. Mantella.

A person smiles in a posed photo.
Nathan Kemler, director of GVSU Galleries and Collections, said the advancements are part of the mobile app's continually refined features. Students have been a key part of the app's development.

The fruition of these projects furthers the Art Gallery's commitment to making art available to all through open access to collections and innovative experiences for interacting with art, Kemler said.The open-source release of the mobile app framework will allow organizations ranging from museums to higher education institutions to avail themselves of technology that is often prohibitively expensive and time consuming to develop, Kemler said.

"For us, we took the long-term approach and we had students work on it through different class projects. So while it was a big time investment, we did not have to do an upfront financial investment because of the way we integrated it through the curriculum," Kemler said.

The Art Gallery now wants to share this framework with other institutions and has had responses worldwide from those who, like the Art Gallery, use Collective Access, which is a free open-source software for managing and publishing museum and archival collections. In addition, several institutions locally and statewide have joined a consortium led by GVSU to expand the software's usage to ensure more access to artwork, Kemler said.

On another front, the app's new augmented reality feature helps enhance engagement with artwork through use of innovative technology to animate works, provide supplemental information and more, Kemler said. The technology provides another form of digital literacy, which generally enhances learning and retention, and it intentionally slows viewers so they engage longer with a piece.

Kemler: The mobile app's augmented reality feature enriches digital literacy and interaction with pieces

An image of a shark appears to be swimming in front of three paintings hung on a wall.
An image of a dog is superimposed on a framed painting hung on a wall. The dog looks as if it is sitting on the bottom of the frame.
Here are two examples of how the augmented reality view looks from images in a video. Watch the video below.

"Artwork is supposed to be not only conversational and have dialogue and narrative around it, but we also want our artwork literally to be alive so that our students can engage with it in different ways," Kemler said. "We want them to see how others are responding to the artwork, and we also want them to create their own responses to it."

Anita Gilleo, granddaughter of painter Mathias Alten provided key support for the project, Kemler said. Gilleo wanted GVSU experts to find a way to animate a sculpture of her grandfather planned for downtown Grand Rapids and agreed to fund the pilot augmented reality project.

Kemler said Julie Goldstein, assistant professor of film and production, provided crucial expertise and work on the pilot project. He asked her to work with 10 Alten paintings to provide an augmented experience that served as an extension of the painting.

Goldstein said it was an exciting opportunity to work with this still-evolving technology that would be used in a gallery setting. She said her goal with Alten's work, which she said has such an inherent serenity, was to create an animated counterpoint to the painting that attracted deeper attention without distracting from a piece's overall feel.

"The goal was to try to create a bridge, a surprise experience to get a student to view the painting a little closer," Goldstein said.

A long history of app development through close collaboration

GVSU's strong partnership with the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing and the work of more than 50 students through the years have allowed Grand Valley to develop the app's technology while providing crucial experiential learning opportunities for the students, Kemler said.

A key partner in developing and refining the app through the years has been Jonathan Engelsma, director of GVSU's Applied Computing Institute. Engelsma said this work on the app presented a beneficial multidisciplinary opportunity for students.

"As a computer science professor, this opportunity for the students to work on building an app like this in an area where a lot of them might not have a lot of exposure is valuable," Engelsma said. "More importantly, this was an opportunity for our students to apply their skills and the expertise they're developing on a real-world project such as this."

Engelsma has also worked closely with Kemler on the AR technology.

“The way we implemented the technology is generalized, so in the future any work of art can be augmented digitally and added to the experience," Engelsma said. "That's exciting, because now it's more than just a feature in the app – it's a technological enabler that could be used in a variety of ways."


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