Private Tour
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Private Tour

By Karen Moltenbrey

Few of us have been fortunate enough to view a painting by a renowned artist within a personal setting. Instead, we've had to gaze at the piece from afar as it hangs on a plain museum wall. Now, thanks to efforts by the Imaging Research Center (IRC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and The Baltimore Museum of Art, the public is able to get a virtual look at how famous works were incorporated into the everyday lives of two local patrons, Etta and Claribel Cone. Through a real-time simulation, viewers can walk the corridors and enter the rooms of the women's apartments as they looked in the early 1900s, and see their art, just as the sisters did on a daily basis.
Digital artists meticulously reconstructed in 3D the early twentieth-century apartments of two local art collectors to give visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art a glimpse of how the collectors incorporated valuable works of art into their everyda

The wealthy Cones were passionate collectors of early twentieth-century French art, having amassed one of the world's most acclaimed collections of paintings by Matisse, in addition to works by Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, and Van Gogh. They bequeathed all their art, along with their possessions and furniture, to The Baltimore Museum of Art. Since then, millions of enthusiasts have enjoyed the Cone Collection, which has become the museum's crown jewel.

In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary of receiving the donation, the museum renovated the Cone Wing, which now includes the virtual walk-through of each sister's apartment. "Through the simulation, museum patrons can see how the collection was originally presented by the sisters, in a space that no longer exists," says UMBC associate professor of visual arts Alan Price, who co-directed the project with Dan Bailey, IRC director. "We essentially took the collection out of the museum exhibition environment so people can see how it existed in a salon presentation within a private collection."
The virtual presentation of the private Cone art collection uses real-time computer animation, incorporating many graphics techniques from the gaming industry.

According to museum director Doreen Bolger, the virtual undertaking has also helped bring the collection into the twenty-first century. "The [simulation] shows how technology can enhance our experience and appreciation of art," she says. "Not only do visitors get to see the breathtaking works as they were displayed by the sisters, but they also get to see and learn more about the collection we have on exhibit."

The project, prompted by the anniversary celebration, was initially created in two versions developed simultaneously by IRC students and staff. The first, created as a permanent display in the museum's Cone Wing, contains a plasma touch screen that visitors can use to take a personalized, self-guided tour of the homes. This exhibit also contains a floor plan of the apartment building so viewers can easily move to specific locations, and offers a 3D view of early-1900s Baltimore to help people visualize the model in the appropriate time period. The second version, a stereoscopic presentation, provided visitors with an immersive experience. Installed at the museum for a short period following the re-opening, the large-screen presentation enabled users to navigate through the apartments using a joy stick fashioned from an ornate, antique doorknob salvaged from the building. The stereoscopic tour incorporated the same CG data set as the interactive installation, but it contained different navigational constraints for the viewers.
According to museum officials, the virtual tour enhances the gallery viewing experience, providing visitors with far more information about the collection than can be presented within the exhibition environment.

More recently, the IRC enhanced the touch-screen iteration by including a larger selection of interactive objects and hot links to a range of interpretive materials, such as critical essays and letters from the sisters and the artists themselves. The tour also incorporates postcards, fabrics, and paper sketches from the museum's Cone archives, and includes a database of information (title, artist, date, museum acquisition number, and so forth) for each piece. Taking advantage of recent hardware and software advancements, the team also upgraded the imagery with textures that are far more photorealistic than those used in the initial project, achieved, in part, with shadow maps and sophisticated lighting effects.

Because of the project's historical nature, the homes had to be modeled as accurately as possible—no easy feat considering that few records exist of the original Marlborough building, where the Cone sisters lived, and that it was completely gutted more than three decades ago. However, during the early stages of the project, a graduate student found a 1908 blueprint of the building complex. Using that floor plan, along with precise measurements the team took of the building's exterior and window openings, the group began reconstructing the expansive Cone apartments. "We also interviewed people who actually lived in the building when the sisters lived there," says Bailey. "We even talked with Ed Cone, a nephew of the sisters who often visited them when he was young."
The IRC team used old photographs from the museum's archives, along with other research data, to re-create the Cone homes. The pictures above were taken in Etta's apartment. The top picture is the virtual representation of that same room.

By piecing together information from the interviews, the team determined the exact location of the apartments inside the building. Then, using Alias|Wavefront's Maya, the IRC team began constructing the homes wall by wall, room by room, as they existed when the women lived there. Comparing measurements of the window openings and the art canvases to those in photographs, the group devised an accurate scale for the imagery. Bailey and Price estimate that the synthetic apartments are accurate to within a 4-inch margin, based on their research data.

Perhaps more daunting than re-creating the floor space was the task of precisely modeling and placing more than 1800 digital objects and works of art (which includes 165 paintings and 37 sculptures) inside the 3D space. To help the students with this task, the museum provided 37 archival photographs of the residences taken during the 1930s and 1940s, 34 of which were reconciled within the project.

"The Cone Collection, with its many Matisses, was well known even when the sisters were alive, and as a result, it was extensively photographed," explains Bailey. However, because the photos weren't labeled well, the digital artists spent a great deal of time trying to figure out which room each picture was from. "The process required a lot of research and patience," he adds, "but we believe we are 100 percent accurate in terms of positioning all the imagery from the photos." All told, the group reconstructed 13 rooms. (No research data was found for the undetermined number of remaining rooms, so they were not re-created for the project.)

According to Price, where the sisters chose to place a sculpture or combination of paintings was sometimes surprising. For instance, the museum curators and various acquaintances of the sisters relayed stories of how the women would prominently display certain works—such as nudes or other pieces that were controversial at the time—when friends and relatives visited. "We were told that they would hang them in the dining room," he says, "just to stir things up."

To ensure that each object was modeled exactly to scale, the team measured the original items—sofas, desks, chairs, and so forth—from the museum's collection. The artists then textured the models in Adobe Systems' Photoshop using photos they took of the objects with an Olympus and Sony digital camera.

"We treated this project like a research document, which meant that we never took liberties," says Price. "We wouldn't reproduce a room if we didn't have the appropriate information for it." In a few instances, though, the museum curators had to make certain assumptions. "For example, we might have pictures that showed three walls of a room, but we would not know what was on the fourth wall," he explains. "So, the curators would make a call, or we would leave the wall blank or sparsely decorated."
The reconstruction team inserted an image of French painter Henri Matisse near some of his paintings, which were re-created from transparencies of the works in their original locations in the homes.

For re-creating the virtual artwork, the team used transparencies of the original paintings supplied by the museum, or in some cases, incorporated a digital photograph onto a geometric plane. "The paintings were the easiest items to re-create," notes Bailey.

To manage the project, the team installed a Web-based image-mapping system that enabled anyone from the museum or the IRC to update models or obtain information about the project. "We had some people who did the modeling and others who inspected them to ensure they were accurate in terms of size and color, and the database helped keep us on track," says Bailey. Once the models were completed, they were inserted into the virtual space with Maya. Then, the data was exported to Virtools' Dev software, where the interactivity was programmed.

Because the application was rendered in real time, the team had to be conscious of each object's resolution. "We used every computer game trick in the book to represent, for example, a chair, with as few polygons as possible, yet still have it look photorealistic," says Bailey. Often, the solution involved trial and error. "We'd run the models through the engine and then play them back to see how fast they'd render," he adds. "If they didn't render fast enough, we'd do it again—just like in game development."

Despite these efforts, there were instances when a scene—viewed from a particular angle—became too complex to render in real time. "The apartments had archways, not doorways, so as you go from one room to another, you might see into two adjoining rooms from that one perspective, which forces us to show all the information in one frame," Price explains. "Because of that, we couldn't get away with simple Z clipping. Instead, we had to come up with ways of 'hiding' objects that are out of sight around the corners." As an alternative, he created a program that tracked the camera positions. That information was then integrated into a database that determined which items to digitally hide from view if a person was inside a certain zone.

Still, some "minor" objects, as determined by the curators, were represented as billboards with photographic textures, while more important objects were modeled in greater detail. Price notes that one of the biggest compromises the team had to make was creating all but one of the sculptures as billboards. "That was difficult because the pieces are really magnificent," he says.

The project, which involved approximately 30 people, took two years to complete. Not only did it demonstrate the skills of the IRC students, but it also achieved a goal of both directors. "As desktop computers with sophisticated graphics cards became more powerful, it was suddenly possible for institutions and individuals to complete a project like this without using a quarter-million-dollar SGI machine," says Bailey. "And, this real-time interactive tour was a perfect application for showcasing that ability." At the museum, the simulation runs on a 2ghz Pentium 4 Dell Computer equipped with an Nvidia Quadro2 Pro graphics card. It also uses an NEC Technologies' 42MP2 plasma display with a Smart Technologies' Smart Board touch-sensitive overlay.

Bailey notes that it is rewarding to see all types of people using the museum installation, reinforcing the co-directors' other goal—to make the complex technology and navigational system easy to use. "In general, this type of technology is directed toward entertainment venues and kids," he says. "This application still fits that bill, but it is intended for art and research that's directed at adults who may not be computer savvy."

Price notes that too often technology takes center stage in an application such as this. "Yet, here is an example where all the effort and technology becomes transparent and disappears," he says. "Suddenly, you're transported back to the early 1900s and you're looking at Picassos and Matisses inside the Cone sisters' apartments."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.