I was ready not to like the idea of rendering gigapixel photographs of the Museo del Prado paintings inside Google Earth, at the location of the real-world Prado. After all, the physical location of a painting is usually a product of historical happenstance; it is an attribute that only matters when you want to see it in real life. On the internet, the tyranny of distance has been vanquished — so why re-introduce it as an artificial constraint in Google Earth, where you are forced you to navigate to Madrid to view content that is much better searched for by title or by painter?
My preëmptive criticism tuned out to be a rather pathetic quibble, however, in the face of some stunning extreme close-ups of these 14 masterpieces. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in particular is ready for its closeup:
Take that, John Ashcroft.
In most paintings my attention headed for the eyes, and then for the background landscapes. I wonder if there is attention-datamining being done here, and whether it will be shared… I’d love to get to see it as heatmaps overlaid on the paintings sometime.
This sudden availability of beyond-archival grade gigapixel imagery poses some new challenges, however. Bosch’s painting in particular highlights the fact that we now have in front of us these whole new worlds to explore… but no easy way for us to share our finds. If I wanted to reference the acrobatic couple above (in a scholarly monograph on medieval depictions of sin, obviously), I’d have no other recourse but to point you in the direction of the gold ledge, blue globe, back pond, center panel. That’s a sub-optimal addressing system. It would be much better if I could just give you a coordinate pinpointing the location on the image in a URL, or even embed the specific view on the web page, like you can with Google Maps.
So perhaps my quibble still stands: Google Earth is certainly well-equipped to quickly render gigapixel images with evident ease, but is it really the best platform for making this imagery widely accessible? Shouldn’t Googling “bosch garden delights” return web-accessible version of this gigapixel image? And wouldn’t it be great if the image were annotatable, in the same manner that Wikimapia lets you annotate the Earth or Flickr and Facebook let you annotate everyday snapshots? [Update: And the way Gigapan.org lets you annotate gigapixel landscapes via snapshots!]
I know, I am looking a gift horse in the mouth — extremely closely. But technologies like Microsoft Live Labs’ Deep Zoom show that web-based immersive gigapixel image browsing is feasible, with the added benefit that browsers support the kind of scripting that makes embedding and annotating possible. (Others have previously brought gigapixel art to the web as well — remember the 16 gigapixel Last Supper from 2007?).
So consider this post a plea to “free” this great new content, so that these paintings can finally become shared, interactive social web objects after a few centuries of being kept at a safe distance. Also, please let this be the start of a trend where all museums place their crown jewels on the web in the best possible light, simply because it is the public-spirited thing to do, even if I am sure it is also good for business. People haven’t stopped queueing for the Mona Lisa because its image is everywhere. Au contraire.