Rishi Sunak is known to love tech, so could it offer a way out of his awkward diplomatic row with Greece over the Elgin Marbles?
The augmented reality (AR) boffins at Snap think it could.
The creators of the app most people associate with wearing silly filters have branched out into culture and the arts, offering new ways for visitors to experience history at some of the world’s most illustrious museums and galleries.
Snap’s AR has been used to reinvent exhibitions at Amsterdam‘s Rijksmuseum, Miami‘s trendy Art Basel fair, London‘s Design Museum, and most recently the iconic Louvre in Paris.
The museum’s department of Egyptian antiquities now features 3D reconstructions of long-lost artwork and other historic monuments, viewable on phones via QR codes or the Snapchat camera.
If it’s good enough for the Louvre, could it be good enough for the British Museum, and allow the Elgin Marbles to return to Greece?
What are the Elgin Marbles and why are they in the British Museum?
History in your hands
“We have initiated discussions,” jokes Donatien Bozon, director of Snap’s AR studio in Paris.
His 14-strong team was formed last year with the mission of bringing AR to art, culture, and education, proving Snapchat’s tech can go well beyond putting virtual dog ears on your friends.
Cultural institutions showed interest in tapping into the app’s audience of 750 million users, he says, as well as bringing new experiences to regular visitors – all without needing any extra physical space.
“We were convinced we could not only leverage the front camera of the phone,” he says, referring to Snapchat’s common use case as a selfie-driven messaging app, “but also the back camera.”
“You can augment the world,” he adds. “And open up so many opportunities.”
Also at the Louvre sits a digital twin of the 222-tonne granite Luxor Obelisks. Built for Egypt’s Luxor Temple during Ramesses II’s reign, one was later moved to the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
But it had initially been considered for a spot in the Louvre’s courtyard. And so in their own bid to rewrite history, the museum worked with Snap to “remove the constraint of physics” and have one installed virtually.
Point your phone’s camera towards the spot where it could have stood, and so it appears.
Where tradition meets technology
Not that AR could ever truly replace the real thing.
“It’s in the name,” says Bozon. “It’s augmenting the experience, not replacing it.”
Probably not actually a satisfying solution to the Elgin Marbles row, then.
But the British Museum has dabbled in AR. Primarily aimed at children, it lets guests embark on AR-driven tours through the Roman Empire and Parthenon using Samsung tablets.
The British Library has also leveraged the tech for its own exhibitions, as some of the world’s oldest institutions, proudly steeped in tradition, look to keep up with the times.
Qi Pan, Snap’s director of computer vision, says AR lets them “do things that were not possible before”.
His London team is responsible for how the firm’s tech actually works, both on phones and in a hypothetical future where millions of us walk around wearing futuristic spectacles.
“A lot of AR today is on mobile, where we’re limited by seeing it through a small rectangle,” he says.
“AR glasses will let you see it directly in the world around you.”
Despite previous attempts at such lenses from the likes of Google and Snap itself having failed to achieve a mainstream breakthrough, Pan is confident AR is on the cusp of a “hardware paradigm shift”.
Apple’s upcoming mixed reality headset may help prove him right, though likely not while priced at £2,800.
For now, the appeal of AR artwork is its accessibility – not just for users who just need a phone to experience it, but also the creators behind what they see.
By teaching himself how to create AR art at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, British artist Doddz went from school struggles to a six-figure salary.
Traditionalists might cry foul, but his success seems testament to a fresh take on artwork that people can view anywhere and take with them too.
Bozon says: “Ten years ago you wouldn’t bet on being a YouTuber as a real job.
“Ten years from now, building in AR will be a real job for thousands of people.”
Let’s hope the marbles row is over by then too.