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This week, the Detroit Institute of Arts previewed a new gallery tool called Lumin. With interactive elements created by the DIA’s interpretive team, Lumin uses an augmented reality platform built by a company called GuidiGO, which allows the user to interact with 3D animations, information and display directions as a way to supplement the experience of visiting the museum. Augmented reality has recently become commonplace with the advent of games like Pokemon Go!, but Lumin is attempting to use this virtual interface for expanding the educational and conceptual power within the museum—and it is the first major institution to roll out such a program. 

“We’re not just about art, we’re also about technology,” said DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons in his introductory remarks during the media preview on Monday, January 9th. “But technology should not be the substitute to replace the work of art—it should be the bridge. This technology is going to allow the visitor to experience the art more deeply.”

Lumin4Visitors look inside the mummy.The Lumin technology runs via a series of handheld Android smartphone devices that can be aimed at specific exhibits to offer interactive interpretive features, as well as being used to generally assist visitors in navigating the museum more generally. The program was developed on Google’s Tango systems, and essentially operates like a kind of Google map inside the building—if you make one of the target exhibits your destination point, on screen directions will guide you there, creating a dotted blue line to follow on your device. 

Once you arrive at an interactive exhibit—there are six in the pilot group, all located in galleries on the first floor—you can activate the “AR” option, which will unfold content to engage the viewer in one of three ways, described by DIA Interpretive Planner Megan DiRienzo as “Play a Game,” “See How it Was,” and “See the Unseen,” respectively. 

“Play a Game” can be sampled at the Ishtar Gate stop, which takes pride of place in the recently refreshed Middle Eastern gallery. The mythical creature featured on the tile mosaic is a combination of four animals, and visitors can use the touch screen to associate parts of the mosaic with their real-life inspiration. Once all four body parts have been matched, the game unlocks an AR view that superimposes a virtual reconstruction of the original mosaic site over the real world setting of the gallery. This approach not only asks the viewer to look more closely at the details of the art on display, it offers a glimpse of the original context of the piece.

Lumin2The AR layer in this display of ancient seals shows how they were used to roll intricate designs into clay tablets, highlighting detail difficult to see in such small objects. “See How it Was” seeks to show how a given artwork looked when it was originally created. 

“Mostly, people see ancient wall mosaics and statuary as being drab and gray, because that’s how they look now,” said DiRienzo. “‘See How it Was’ enables visitors to see how they looked right out of the artist’s hands.” 

The Lumin device can be aimed at an Assyrian wall mosaic, also in the Middle Eastern Gallery, and when you tap on the figures, it shifts them into their original, vibrant colors. Other Lumin exhibits enhance the viewer experience by showing the original function of pieces that might otherwise go overlooked. 

“Some of these objects are thousands of years old,” said DiRienzo, “And while they used to be part of everyday life, they no longer are. One of the jobs that we have at the museum is to reconnect them to everyday life.” One such example is a pair of stone water filters, which resemble urinals to the modern eye. The AR layer of this exhibit shows the devices in their original, fully functional form, which piques interest in a display that most museumgoers walk right by without a second glance. 

The final mode, “See the Unseen,” is perhaps the most exciting, and is a perfect showcase for the opportunities presented by augmented reality to expand the experience of the museum for visitors. The Egyptian mummy has always been a popular exhibit, but with the new Lumin layer, visitors can see a visualization of the 2000-year-old skeleton laid out inside the wrappings. Not only does this data layer underscore the presence of a physical body within the exhibit, it highlights things the viewer could never otherwise see, such as a skull fracture discovered by CAT scan. 

Lumin duoL: At Ishtar's Gate, a game unlocks the AR layer that visualizes an entire courtyard within the gallery. R: Lumin additionally offers useful way-finding features, that help visitors find the interactive exhibits, but also regular features, and amenities like bathrooms.GuidiGO, which has approximately 50 clients around the world, terms itself a “storytelling platform,” and all the project’s collaborators, from developer David Lerman of GuidiGO, Justin Quimby of Google, and the DIA’s Vice President of Learning and Audience Engagement, Jennifer Czajkowski, stressed the importance of Lumin as a mechanism for enhancing the experience of museum-going, rather than acting as a distraction. 

“It’s another vehicle, another tool that we can use to help visitors find personal meaning in art,” said Czajkowski. “It’s a tool about discovery and using your imagination. This is how we can break down the physical barriers of the museum, allowing visitors, through their imagination, to take objects out of their containers and interact with them.” 

In a sense, augmented reality is giving new life to these objects, long held in the static field of the museum. It’s an exciting new development for organizations dedicated to engagement and education around the arts, and tremendously exciting for the DIA to be the first major institution—and the world’s first art museum—to implement this technology. 

The program will premiere to the public on January 25th—visitors will need an ID card or passport to borrow one of the devices and take themselves on an interactive tour of the first-floor exhibits. The DIA has plans to roll out many more tour stops across all three floors of the museum’s public galleries, following a period of user feedback on the first floor tour. Keep in mind, as winter descends, that a host of new experiences are waiting for you at the DIA, ready to be unleashed by the touch of a button!

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.