The National Gallery, London, unveils a new interactive display service on Thursday. The gallery hopes it will help shed light on its 2,300-strong collection.
ArtStart lets users examine details of paintings
In almost every museum or gallery in the world, you will find one - probably located in a small, neglected corner and attracting occasional visitors.
With a touch screen display or trackball, visitors will usually sit at it for a few minutes before leaving, disappointed by the whole experience.
Interactive displays have been a part of museum and galleries for about two decades but have rarely been successful at augmenting the whole visiting experience.
The National Gallery hopes it can change all that with its new service ArtStart.
Up to 36 kiosks are planned throughout the gallery
Visitors can search the entire 2,300-strong collection of the gallery and view pictures that have been digitised on a 100 megapixel camera.
The captured images are not displayed in their full glory - that would take up too much storage space - but visitors can zoom in on any section of any painting.
Unnoticed details and flourishes suddenly spring to life, while there is complementary text on each art work.
Thirty of the gallery's most important works and 30 of the key artists are highlighted on ArtStart, providing a wealth of detail, including the artistic context, and social background of each painting and painter.
Users can also plot a unique tour around the gallery, focusing on painters or artists of their own choice.
The technology used to create ArtStart is a mixture of the tried and trusted and cutting edge.
"It's aimed at the broadest possible audience. Our aspiration is that it helps every visitor to get the most out of a visit," said Steve Dale, deputy head of new media at the National Gallery.
"We've made the focus of the system, the paintings themselves. We've eschewed pyrotechnic technology for the sake of it.
"The technology is entirely in support of displaying the pictures to the public."
Dr John Cupitt, of the gallery's scientific department, said viewing images on the screen was as close to looking at the real thing as the technology allowed.
"The 100 megapixel camera is calibrated against international colour standards, as are the screens.
"We have a pretty precise mathematical pipe joining the two together. So what you see on the screen is very close to how the painting actually looks.
"You are seeing it as it is, not how it appears on a photograph."
Dr Cupitt said the National Gallery was unique in having its collection digitised in a colour-managed way.
At launch, there will be 12 interactive kiosks, with a plan to have up to 36 by the end of 2005.
Users can get background information on all the paintings
Mr Dale said: "We didn't want something that felt like a bolt on to the side of the gallery. Throughout we have tried to make the system feel like an integral part of a visit."
For that reason ArtStart is not available online - it is not designed to be used as a remote browsing system, but rather part and parcel of any visit to the National Gallery.
"The aspirations are often to build a system and then spin off a website at the same time. This is solely the best interactive touch screen kiosk we can make," said Philip Read, managing director of Nykris, which developed the system for the gallery.
ArtStart is linked to the heart of the National Gallery's collection: it updates dynamically if the collection is altered, amended, or even if a painting is moved within the gallery.
"We also provide info about what happens here at the gallery on the day of your visit - so it is not just an island of information," said Mr Dale.
The idea of an interactive kiosk may seem dated to some - especially in the age of wireless networks and handheld computers, or PDAs (personal digital assistants).
But Mr Dale said the gallery did not want to distract from the experience of looking at the paintings themselves." "Ultimately we want it to make people go back to the paintings. It's never been designed as a substitute for seeing the painting themselves.
Mr Read said that were still issues to be resolved over using handheld computers in galleries.
"The gallery management have valid concerns about having screens in too great a proximity to the work.
"Whilst PDA tours are extremely interesting, I'm not convinced that anyone has fully cracked some of the problems - how do you take a small screen in a gallery space and create a truly compelling interpretive space?
"There's also cost and the fragility of them."
Usability has been to the fore in the system's development.
A lot of testing went into ensuring that people would not be put off by the interface or forced down dead ends where their only option was to retreat to the start of the experience and begin again.
It is an elegant system which balances the need for simplicity with users' different needs for detail and depth.
Mr Read said: "A lot of detail, design and user testing has gone into it to create a simple and elegant system.
"Months of research went into background colours to ensure they set the painting off to its best effect."