First exposure to the project also suggests that Google is still thinking in basic terms about how to make cultural information available on the Web: Digitize and upload. The galleries approached are all standard tourist destinations, and the works subjected to the gigapixel project are all iconic, perhaps over-famous works. As an archival tool, it would be more interesting to digitize temporary exhibitions, to keep a permanent record of material that may have been borrowed and assembled from various collections for a particular scholarly purpose.
And the full potential of this technology may not emerge until it has been connected to more robust social-networking technologies, when the "empty room" feel of the current imagery is replaced by the "full room" of conversation and interaction with other virtual museum-goers.
Marsha Semmel, deputy director for museums at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, said that it is important for the future of online collections to create connections between material held by different institutions. Her organization, a U.S. government agency that supports museums and libraries, has funded projects that create ways of "tagging" images, including tags created by people who aren't experts or academics. The challenge, and the opportunity, is not just to open up access to art online, but to facilitate research and exploration across institutional boundaries.
And there is still an immense amount of work to be done to create a digital experience that better mimics the psychology of both looking and browsing. Asked if his team had worked with experts who study the psychology and physiology of how people actually look at art, Sood said that had been left to experts at the respective museums.
Which means that experiencing art through Google Art will have its frustrations. One of the images that will be made available through the new portal is Hans Holbein's 1533 "The Ambassadors," held by the National Gallery in London. The painting includes an image of a skull, painted in anamorphic perspective, which makes it highly distorted when seen face-on, but legible when seen from a sharp side angle. Will the effect translate into online viewing?
"It's tough," said Sood. "We tried, we wanted to get that effect." He said it appears to better effect in the gigapixel version, but not so well in the walk-through function.
"Nothing beats the first-person experience," said Sood.