Opinion

More Screens, More Knowledge: Testing the Detroit Institute of Arts’ New Augmented Reality App

The guide, Lumin, offers museumgoers an opportunity to look closer and, by providing critical context, expand their understanding of a given art object.

Visitors use augmented reality devices to look inside the mummy during the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Lumin media preview. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — At a media preview on January 9, the Detroit Institute of Arts introduced Lumin, a new interpretive guide developed in partnership with Google and an augmented reality (AR) platform creator called GuidiGO. Subsequently, a tempest of conflicting emotions was triggered in the soul of this arts writer.

The dusty old curmudgeon in the heart of my being sighed with disappointment at this imposition of screen-based technology on yet another facet of our existence. And not just any! Art! A most hallowed and ancient form of looking, wondering, and communing with humanity through the ages!

A visitor experiments with Lumin at Ishtar’s Gate. (photo courtesy the DIA)

On the other hand, geez, I even bore myself when I talk this way, and after taking it for a test run, there is no denying that Lumin is pretty freakin’ cool. It’s like if Pokémon Go could make you smarter, instead of … whatever it currently does (I don’t know; I am a curmudgeon). Because, while the Pokémon Go craze encouraged people to go out in public and then basically ignore public in favor of catching little digital creatures (right? I am hip! I am with it!), Lumin offers museumgoers an opportunity to look closer and, by providing critical context, expand their understanding of a given art object.

The virtual courtyard in the AR layer of Ishtar’s Gate

For example, Ishtar’s Gate — one of six pilot stops on the DIA’s inaugural Lumin tour — is a piece of an ancient mosaic that once adorned a Babylonian courtyard. After following the navigation screen (which basically functions like an indoor version of Google maps, tracing a blue line toward your chosen destination) to find it, you can play a simple game that unlocks a deeper AR layer visualizing the entire courtyard in a 360-view around the gallery. Suddenly, the static wall mosaic seems more real, more alive, as the app has effectively drawn history into the present. Likewise, an interactive presentation connected to a decorative limestone sculpture from an Assyrian palace is activated by an AR layer that restores the original colors of the piece, reverting the flat, gray appearance to its original and far more vibrant color palette.

But what, the curmudgeon must ask, becomes of reality? As I follow my blue line from gallery to gallery, I have to remind myself to take my eyes off the screen to notice the objects I’m passing. Just because they haven’t received a sexy technological overlay doesn’t mean I should cruise by them without a second look. What of the quiet, introspective moments afforded by the traditional museum experience? Is there no place we may be free of these invasive screens, these digital circuses?

The mummy’s AR layer enables viewers to see details of the skeleton that would otherwise be unknown to them.

Nuts to that, though — Lumin lets me see inside the mummy. The AR layer for the popular 2,000-year-old occupant of the Egyptian gallery doesn’t just offer the morbid fascination of visualizing the skeleton hidden beneath wrappings and a sarcophagus; it actually reveals information that would otherwise be invisible to the viewer, such as the skull fracture discovered by taking a CAT scan of the remains.

In the African gallery, Lumin demonstrates the process of carving a ceremonial urn.

And in fact, there are ways that the technology lends itself to a deeper kind of looking. Within the African gallery, an AR layer attached to a ceremonial urn reenacts the intricate carving process, transforming a virtual stump that sits side by side with the finished piece in the view-screen. Unlike the real artwork, the virtual form is animated, which reveals a wooden head rolling around inside the vessel. Having seen it in augmented reality, it’s clearly visible in real reality, but I hadn’t noticed it before.

Likewise, the AR layer helps enliven a pair of ancient water filters, which read very much to the modern eye as urinals. In the first place, the app attracts viewers to these pieces, which mostly pass unnoticed in the museum. It also provides a model of a working water filter, offering crucial context.

David Lerman, CEO of GuidiGO (right), discusses Lumin with visitors at the media preview.

Whether Lumin can continue to build on the start it’s made in expanding the viewer experience, or whether it’s doomed to limited faddishness like so many other AR apps, lies in the hands of the DIA, the first major institution to implement it, as well as others that will follow suit. Certainly, there’s limitless potential to adding interactive elements to the static experience of the traditional museum visit, and the DIA has plans to roll out more AR features as it gains feedback from users. The technology does inarguably provide some practical benefits, like helping visitors navigate the museum, and may be of great interest to labyrinthine institutions for that feature alone. Lumin also presents the possibility of helping viewers with sight or hearing impairments connect with exhibitions and objects in a more meaningful way.

As Google’s Justin Quimby pointed out, Lumin can also be helpful in finding a restroom.

True, my creaky old heart breaks a little, seeing screens and more screens everywhere I go. But it’s the way of dinosaurs to go extinct, and the bigger part of me is pleased to see the DIA take such a step in drawing this place of hallowed antiquity into a bright and ever-changing future.

Lumin will debut to the public on January 25 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Visitors must bring a valid form of identification in order to check out one of the devices.

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