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Advanced Arts Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine you are in the Louvre. Now you are moving around a Rodin, drinking in its subtle perfections. You notice the curve of the chin, the small of the back, the tilt of the wrist.

Now imagine you are sitting in your house at the same time.

There is a little-known site on the World Wide Web--it’s https://digimuse.usc.edu/museum.html if you want to look--where such flights of the imagination are grounded in reality. Welcome to the University of Southern California’s virtual museum--a $100,000 project funded by the Annenberg Center for Communication and spearheaded by two San Fernando Valley residents.

Encino’s George Bekey, director of USC’s Robotics Research Laboratory, and USC computer engineering major Steven Goldberg, 20, of Chatsworth, created the Web site, which puts 3-D art on the Internet.

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“My long-range vision is to create a true virtual museum,” said Bekey, who hopes to someday set up a “statue of the month” Web page.

“It started as a mystery,” said Selma Holo, director of the Fisher Gallery at USC. Two years ago, a major art collector from Spain was visiting the gallery when he found a 1901 marble sculpture of a nude, crouching figure entitled “Drinking Maiden.”

“It was next to the bathroom door, downstairs,” said Holo. “It wasn’t even on display.”

Holo could tell him the name of the statue and the sculptor, Ernst Wenck of Germany, but little more.

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There were no records indicating who gave the statue to the university or when it joined the collection. Nor did they know what happened to the statue between 1919, when Wenck removed it from the National Gallery in Berlin, and 1936, when the statue was reportedly in the hands of a New York collector named Axel Beskow.

Furthermore, they had no idea why a world-renowned china factory had produced at least two copies of the statue.

During the 18-month project to generate discussion and elucidate the history of “Drinking Maiden,” Bekey mounted two cameras on a robotic arm and placed the statue on a large turntable--both controlled remotely by software created by Goldberg. Web users can send computer commands to rotate the statue and move the robotic arm to view it from any angle on their home PCs. Because the two cameras are side by side, Web users with virtual-reality goggles can see the sculpture in three dimensions.

The Drinking Maiden Web site also has a virtual queue, where people can chat or read about the artwork.

“Eventually, we could create an international network of museums,” said Goldberg. He prophesied that museum curators could use his software program to project 3-D images around the world to share information and exhibit artworks without the trouble of shipping them.

“With this, you can also have the kind of experience that most people wouldn’t have even if they went to a museum, where sculptures are shoved against the wall,” said Holo.

And Bekey and Goldberg believe their technology has applications far beyond the rarefied air of the art world.

“This could be utilized for industrial inspections,” said Bekey. “If you can look at a statue, you can look at an airplane part or a fender for a car . . . and, I suppose, a living person could just as well be on that turntable.”

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