Google has launched an ambitious project to bring some of the world's finest art to a laptop.
The Google Art Project has tapped into the collections of 17 major art museums around the world and digitised thousands of works of art. In addition, the web giant has brought its 360-degree Street View technology to museum galleries, allowing people to walk the hallways of the National Gallery in London and peruse the works on display via a web browser.
"This initiative started as a '20-percent project' by a group of Googlers passionate about making art more accessible online," said Amit Sood, the head of the project, in a statement on Tuesday. "Together with our museum partners around the world, we have created what we hope will be a fascinating resource for art lovers, students and casual museum-goers alike — inspiring them to one day visit the real thing."
The 20-percent scheme allows Google employees to devote one-fifth of their work time to side projects.
The Google Art Project has been in development for months, and museums participating in the effort include Tate Britain and the National Gallery in London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Palace of Versailles in France; the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid; and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Pictured above is Sunflowers, one of the stand-out items in the collection of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. The painting is one of 1,061 high-resolution images in the project.
Google's Street View technology, which was recently extended to include Antarctica, has been applied to the floor plans of the museums.
Users can wander the hallways of the National Gallery in London (above), stop and zoom in on the pictures in front of them, in exactly the same way as they can towns in Google Street View.
Small floating buttons appear next to artworks that have been digitised for the project. By clicking on the button, people can open up a high-resolution view of the painting. The Navigate Floor Plan button, meanwhile, allows users to jump to other parts of the museum that have been snapped by Google's cameras.
In total, the project has digitised 385 gallery rooms and features work by nearly 500 artists.
Some images on the gallery floor remain blurred when you zoom in on them, however, which Google says is due to copyright restrictions.
Clicking on any one of the digitised pictures presents users with a range of options.
In addition to basic information, such as the title, artist and year of creation, Google Art Project offers detailed viewing notes written by the museum, as well as artist information and links to similar works.
One piece of artwork from each museum has been selected for what Google calls "super high-resolution" scans using 'gigapixel' technology. These images contain some seven billion pixels, which allows extreme close-ups.
Pictured above is a close-up of the National Gallery's gigapixel painting — The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein.
"Viewers will see details and explore the painting in a way that hasn't been possible before," said Nicholas Penny, director of The National Gallery, in Google's statement. "The Google Art Project is a powerful example of how digital technology can help art institutions work in partnership to reach out globally to new audiences."
Pictured above is an extreme close-up of the gigapixel artwork from the Tate Britain, No Woman, No Cry (1998) by Chris Ofili.
Google said that it gave the museums free rein to choose the artworks to be included in the Art Project. Other super high-resolution images in the collection include Van Gogh's The Starry Night in New York's Museum of Modern Art; Rembrandt's The Night Watch in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum; and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
A specially designed Street View camera mounted on a trolley captured 360-degree views of the museum rooms. These images were stitched together to create a more-or-less seamless museum tour.
The museum views can also be reached via Google Maps, which will link to the project.
A Google spokeswoman told ZDNet UK that the company hopes to expand the project's reach in the future, although it does not have firm dates. "This is the first incarnation, and over the next few years we hope to add more works, more museums and more partners," she said.