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Virtual reality lets rare works of art take a field trip

Kremer Museum's mobile app allows people worldwide to visit using any Google Daydream-ready phone and VR headset

Art collectors George and Ilone Kremer reproduced 74 artworks from their own collection to create a traditional museum experience using video-game technologies and a 21st century twist.


THIS museum is floating in outer space.

In front of you, there is a line of stunning European old master paintings to observe and explore. Behind you is a sleek walkway over the infinite void of sky and stars. If you were to take a running leap, you would fly out into nothingness and never stop.

Except that you would probably hit the wall of a conference room first.

Then you take off your helmet and emerge from the Kremer Museum, a virtual reality art gallery of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, which has been set in an imagined celestial sphere. Back in reality, you are in the meeting room of a corporate lounge in an Amsterdam hotel.

In recent years, many museums have made their artworks digitally accessible by uploading high-resolution images to the Internet as "virtual museums". Meanwhile, contemporary "virtual reality artists" have been using high-tech stereoscopic tools such as Google Tilt Brush, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to paint or sculpt in three dimensions.

Dutch art collectors George and Ilone Kremer decided to combine these two developments. They have reproduced 74 artworks from their own stellar art collection to create a traditional museum experience using video-game technologies and a 21st century twist.

This month and next, the Kremer Museum is rolling out its first mobile app, which will allow people worldwide to visit a virtual museum using any Google Daydream-ready phone and virtual reality headset, simply by placing the smartphone sideways into the headset and turning it on. The app is free, and through a program that they have also created called Mighty Masters, the Kremers plan to donate smartphones and virtual reality helmets to selected schools, beginning in India with the help of the Delivering Change Foundation.

"We've been trying to spread knowledge about our collection as wide as possible over many years, and this is a much faster way of reaching many more people," Mr Kremer said in an interview. "With a mobile app that works, you have the world as your marketplace."

Although the couple has been sharing their art collection for decades through exhibitions, museum loans and other means, this is the first time that they do not have to worry about travel wear and tear. "That's the beauty of this type of museum," Mr Kremer said. "You never have to think about security, insurance or transport fees or any of that. No plumbing or building codes."

The Kremers, who live in Dubai and have homes in Dallas and Amsterdam, have been collecting art since 1994, when Mr Kremer bought a drawing by Govert Flinck, one of Rembrandt's most successful pupils, from the Amsterdam gallery Salomon Lilian.

His wife did not like his initial purchase, but together they began to collect under the guidance of one of the Netherlands' leading old master dealers, Robert Noortman, and accumulated one of the world's most respected troves of Dutch and Flemish masters in private hands. Their collection includes paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan Lievens, along with impressionist works.

The idea for a virtual reality museum came from their son Joël, who had worked in the United States for Google. Mr Joël Kremer eventually became the director of the museum, and spearheaded the project.

Each painting in the collection was photographed about 3,000 times and then merged into a 3D image using photogrammetry, or measurements of surface points. Visitors to the museum can therefore look not only at the front of a picture, but also walk around and see labels and other markings on the back.

Glitches still need to be worked out. The image resolution still appears to be inadequate to create a sufficiently high-resolution reproduction. And the subject matter does not help - 17th-century Dutch painting, especially the domestic genre scenes favoured by the Kremers, was very detail oriented; beauty can be found in the flicker of light on a woman's silk gown, or light glancing off a pearl, or the exquisitely meticulous fringe on a tablecloth.

Mr Joël Kremer acknowledged that the pixelation is not adequate right now but said that the issue was being worked on, and that it seemed likely that this would be fixed as the technology inevitably improved.

The Kremers have made what they will only describe as "a significant investment" of money to develop the museum. Mr George Kremer is quick to note, however, that "building this is a fraction of what a physical building would cost". To achieve the same ethereal setting, he added, "you'd then have to shoot it into space, and that would be a costly affair". NYTIMES