Google and Getty team up for pictures worth a thousand links


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You’ve seen that painting before but can’t remember: Is it Manet or Monet? Once again, when it comes to the searchable world, Google wants to supply the answer.

The team behind Google Goggles, the smartphone application that among other things lets users take a photograph of a bottle of wine to find out whether it’s worth $10 or $100, has partnered with the Getty Museum to provide information on hundreds of paintings from its permanent collection.


Google Goggles is at base a visual search engine that is activated not by typing in key phrases but by taking a picture on your smartphone of the object (be it a wine bottle label or book or historic landmark) in question. They call it a “visual query.” Now Getty visitors using the program can take pictures of paintings that interest them to bring up links to information, starting with content prepared by the museum.

More effective with two than three dimensions, Google Goggles already recognizes some photographs and paintings from other museums—including world-famous artworks the database has picked up by crawling the Internet. But this is the first partnership by which a museum has provided images and prepared content for this specific use. The Getty has supplied information on the artist and artwork for about 300 paintings. About half of those have audio snippets as well.

Google Goggles product manager Shailesh Nalawadi, whose engineering team is based in the technology giant’s Santa Monica office, says they wanted to start local. ‘We always had the museum use-case in mind,’ he says, ‘and because the engineering team is here in Los Angeles, we wanted to do it with an L.A. institution.’

‘When we sit at lunch in our Google cafeteria here, we can look out and see the Getty,’ he adds.

Maria Gilbert, a senior content developer at the Getty Museum, says the new application ‘does not replace any existing technology’ at the museum. Rather, it’s meant to be another choice for visitors who would rather not spend $5 on traditional audio guides or spend the time to type key phrases into Web browsers to access online information.

Of course, the museum still has wall labels identifying Manet’s ‘Rue Mosnier With Flags’ or Monet’s ‘Rouen Cathedral,’ but Gilbert points out that the new application has the advantage of letting you save and read information after the visit from the comfort of home. It will also translate written materials like wall labels that you photograph into a language of your choice. She says the project was done at no cost to the Getty, because it essentially involved repurposing existing visitor and website content.

Earlier this year, Google launched a more ambitious museum initiative: the Google Art Project, which offers users a virtual tour of 17 prestigious museums across nine countries and the power to zoom in and magnify any inch of more than 1,000 artworks.

Nalawadi says that project ‘is a separate but related’ initiative, ‘part of a broader effort at Google to work with museums and other cultural institutions because they share the same goal of making art discoverable and bringing it into the hands of end users.’

Why wasn’t the Getty included in that initiative? ‘I was not involved in that decision but I’m sure we hope to work with them on that as well.’ He did, however, confirm that he is in talks with ‘quite a few museums’ to bring more images into the Google Goggles database.


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--Jori Finkel