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Research spotlight: Computer program digitizes historic art

Touch Art Gallery application brings works to life on larger, more interactive medium

The Garibaldi Panorama is a 273-foot, double-sided watercolor painting that depicts the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general and politician. The painting, which is more than four feet tall and housed on an enormous scroll, is a relic of a once-popular art form called the moving panorama — the 19th century precursor to the modern-day movie. Viewers would watch the story of the moving panorama unfurl as the painting was unrolled before their eyes, sequentially showing one portion of the story after the other.

Acquired by the University over a decade ago, the Panorama has since undergone a digitization process to preserve it and make it accessible to researchers and students. Computer scientists originally digitized the Panorama in 2007, The Herald previously reported. In 2010, Professor of Italian Studies Massimo Riva launched a collaboration with the Department of Computer Science to help create a platform for displaying the Garibaldi Panorama to the Brown community.

Since the Panorama was digitized, Professor of Computer Science Andy van Dam and his team of researchers have refined their technology into a more streamlined, interactive Windows application called Touch Art Gallery.

The appeal of applications such as TAG is that they provide “the flexibility to design collections of works, like you would in a regular exhibition, but then give the user an extra degree of interactivity,” said Dan Zhang ’15, a member of van Dam’s research team and a former Herald photographer. The platform provides users with “a stronger impetus to explore by presenting contextual media alongside the artwork,” he added, noting that the software currently includes additional archival materials and associated works linked to the art pieces. A tour function also takes users through collections.

TAG, primarily geared toward museum-goers, allows users to interact with works of art in ways that they could not with physical pieces — for example, users can zoom in to look at minute details of paintings that cannot easily be seen by looking at canvas. In a demonstration, Zhang illustrated how pictures like a Rembrandt oil painting could be zoomed in on the touchscreen until the cracks in the canvas were visible.

“The idea is that we’re not restricted to a small picture that you would see on a conventional website,” Zhang said. The only limit to TAG’s ability to display an image on a screen is the resolution of the original photograph, some of which were film stills taken during the ’70s and ’80s, he added.

Riva said TAG can sometimes be difficult to integrate into classroom settings.

“My role has always been that of guinea pig on one hand,” Riva said of teaching with the software. TAG “is a somewhat limited software. It wasn’t conceived specifically for research or teaching, but we have been sort of pushing the envelope in (both) directions.”

Riva has taught three courses incorporating TAG technology over the years, he said, including this semester’s ITAL 1430: “The Panorama and 19th-Century Visual Culture.”

“The trend with TAG has been to make it more attractive and a smoother interaction,” Riva said. “The result is really great.”​

But, he added, while the software has become more streamlined and user-friendly, which has benefitted his students, he and other researchers sometimes preferred the previous versions of the software that were more multifaceted but harder to use. “I don’t mind the challenges of a more complex form of interaction,” Riva said. “In a sense there has been, not a struggle, but a negotiation there.”

The next focus for TAG researchers is to expand the availability of the software. “We’re currently moving to a web-based model, and we’re exploring that space of how we can support visitors from home,” said Jessica Herron, a RISD graduate and a member of van Dam’s development team.

In addition to seeing an expansion of its features, TAG has also entered the global arena.

The British Library featured the Garibaldi Panorama in 2010, The Herald previously reported. Since that exhibition, TAG has been used to display the Panorama in Italy in 2011 and in Brazil in 2013, developers said.

Museums including the Seattle Art Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum have recently begun using TAG to display parts of their collections, including large panoramas.


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