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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Julie Wernert

Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2005

New technologies transform the art museum experience

MAY 26, 2005

A virtual 3D recreation of a brushpot from China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Multiple wall projections of fine art objects. Virtual 3D recreations of ancient Chinese rarities. Multimedia content on gallery works transmitted to the palm of your hand.

These technologies, which were developed by Indiana University artists and researchers, in collaboration with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, may revolutionize the museum experience while improving public access to art. Designed to enhance visitors' interaction with IMA collections, the new technology and visualization tools -- ranging from personal digital assistants, or PDAs, to portable 3D devices, interactive displays and virtual environments -- were unveiled earlier this month when the museum opened its newly renovated and expanded building.

At the etx display, museum visitors manipulate small objects on the tabletop to influence imagery projected to the walls of the room.

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An experimental space in the museum called the Davis X Room houses several of these technologies. They include etx -- an interactive tabletop display of art collections developed at the Visualization and Interactive Spaces Laboratory, which is part of the Pervasive Technology Laboratories at IU. At the etx display, museum visitors can use small tracking paddles to access more information on individual art pieces, including which gallery holds the selected piece. That information is then projected onto the walls of the room.

For example, a visitor might select a particular work because of its color or style. Information is displayed on one wall highlighting the relationships between the selected work and other pieces from the collection. Another wall provides detailed information about the piece, while a third wall identifies the gallery housing the selected piece. Multiple users can explore within etx at once.

"It's important that our technologies are deployed in ways that contribute to the local community," said Polly Baker, a distinguished scientist and director of the Visualization and Interactive Spaces Laboratory. "Working with the museum was a real partnership. We worked together to design ways in which visitors could use etx to explore the art collection. The result is an installation that highlights our technology and provides a unique offering to visitors. In terms of enhancing visitor experience through technology, the partnership with IU helps to position the IMA as a national leader among art museums."

The Davis X Room also contains "Cabinet of Dreams," a 3D virtual environment showcasing highlights of the IMA's Chinese art collection. A team from IU's Hope School of Fine Arts led by Assistant Professor Margaret Dolinsky, who is also a research scientist in University Information and Technology Services, selected objects from the IMA's Chinese collection, then recreated them as 3D computer graphics and displayed them in virtual environments. The objects range in date from 1000 B.C. to the mid-1800s and include bronze, earthenware and wood ceremonial pieces, such as an inkstone, a brushpot, soul urns, figures and household items. One of the objects is a Qing dynasty (1644-1911) cabinet made of cloisonné, glass and zitan wood.

A John-e-Box displaying an interactive virtual reality art piece at the Indiana University Art Museum.

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The cabinet is the metaphoric center of the installation, reflected in the art and display device as if it were a modern-day Wunderkabinett. Cabinet of Dreams appears on the John-e-Box, a portable, large-format, 3D stereo display system. The John-e-Box was developed by IU's Advanced Visualization Laboratory in conjunction with the Department of Chemistry at IU Bloomington. It is a key component of IU's plan to deliver advanced visualization capabilities directly into the laboratories, classrooms and studios of the university's artists and researchers. The IMA is one of the first external deployments of the John-e-Box.

Arts patrons likely are familiar with audio headset tours that provide them with educational information on exhibits and allow them to browse galleries at their own pace. Through the use of ArtXplore, a user-friendly PDA being developed for the IMA, visitors will have greater freedom to customize their museum experience. The handheld device, which will be the first of its type in the United States, provides multiple layers of audio and visual content, such as graphics, animations, video and panoramas, on 16 objects from the IMA's American collection. It also will allow visitors to review their experiences and convey comments to the IMA.

Both the Smithsonian Institution and Chicago's Field Museum are designing systems similar to ArtXplore, which is being developed through a collaboration of the IMA and IU's Informatics Research Institute, the Visualization and Interactive Spaces Laboratory, the Pervasive Technology Laboratories, the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI and the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI.

Additionally, IU has worked with the IMA to enhance the museum's management of its exhibits through computer controls. A system, developed in concert with the Purdue School of Engineering at IUPUI, allows for the controlled startup and orderly shutdown of computer systems in exhibit spaces. It enables a single computer on the museum's local area network to control an almost unlimited number of remote computers on the same network.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is one of the largest general art museums in the nation. The museum's $74 million building expansion, which added approximately 50 percent more gallery space, will reopen in phases as galleries are enhanced and reinstalled, leading to a grand reopening in December 2006.

For more information about the technologies designed in collaboration with the IMA or to speak to the artists and researchers who developed them, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or, or Julie Wernert, OVPIT, at 812-856-5517 or Other print resolution images from the IMA also are available upon request.