Going in depth into the VR experience “Mona Lisa: Beyond the glass”

The portrait of Mona Lisa is well known to everyone since childhood. Perhaps there is not a single art book in which this art piece is not presented. There are many myths about this painting. Art critics and scientists still continue to explore its genius.

In commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Louvre museum in Paris organized the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, in which the most significant paintings, drawings, manuscripts, etc were collected and displayed.  Since the original Mona Lisa painting is exhibited in one of the halls of the Louvre, it was necessary to include the painting in the exhibition in another way. And so, the idea of the VR experience “Mona Lisa: Beyond the glass” was born.

Perhaps, the interpretation of this painting is the most difficult task that technologies can face. How to tell the true story about the painting? How to make the discourse attractive, informative and not distort the facts? How to capture in 3D the elusive facial expressions of a young woman and her mystical smile that fascinates everyone? Is it possible to create a perfect digital 3D copy of a genius portrait and not cause irritation and hostility among the public?

During my visit to the Museum Connections exhibition in January in Paris, I had a chance to meet and talk with Fabien Barati, the director of Emissive, the company that developed this project. Below, I present the summary of our talk that delivers the main facts of the process and implementation.

What is the company’s trajectory?

Emissive was founded 14 years ago.  We use virtual reality and augmented reality to create brand experiences, training and visualization tours. We have created more than 20 experiences to date.

Could you tell about the origins of the project “Mona Lisa: Beyond the glass”? How the project was initiated?

HTC Vive Arts partnered with the Louvre to initiate the creation of a VR experience. An open competition was held. Emissive won and we began to work with the curators of the Louvre on the first-ever VR experience in the Louvre.

The VR experience is open until the end of February 2020, in one of the rooms of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, equipped with 11 VR headsets. It can also be accessed through the Viveport store for free as well.

What where challenges and obstacles you faced in the development of the project?

The challenge was to create a Mona Lisa character in 3D from a 2D painting. The VR experience not only allows seeing Mona Lisa in 3D as we know her in the painting but also give the observer an opportunity to see something else. For example, we recreated the landscape behind Mona Lisa.  It was not an easy task because of there is a lot of details hidden from the eye in the dark of the background. The scene represents a dream landscape and only two columns are depicted. So, we needed to find references, to do deep research of similar buildings constructed at the same period, then reconstruct the landscape and recreate the scene in 3D and 360º.

Also in the painting, you can’t see the back of Mona Lisa. We had to work with curators to know more about her hairstyle. We also researched the fabric of the textile to shatter the myths about her origin.

The idea also was to create an emotional connection with the painting, to motivate the user to see the real artwork.

In our opinion the VR experience does not replace the real painting; it is a way to understand it better.

Who did the documentation and research?

Our team worked together with the curators of the Louvre. In order to prepare a 3D model, we needed to consult different types of sources. So, there were Louvre curators who gave us a lot of information, but we did our own research in order to really understand the details of the painting. As VR professionals we made proposals that we thought were key for the VR experience. Throughout the project development we needed to make decisions on what is interesting to share with the public and how.

How many people participated in the project?

Altogether, 12 people were involved, including 2 who worked on storytelling. They are also specialists in this specific technology, so they understand perfectly what will or will not work in a digital experience, and how to tell a story in virtual reality. To tell a good story, they needed to have a deep understanding of the subject and the message to deliver. So, they prepared several proposals for the Louvre, presenting what would be interesting to implement as a VR experience.

How long did the development take?

It took between 4-5 months, which is quite a short period.

During the development of the project, there were a lot of validations. Each of our steps had to be validated by the Louvre curators. First, the museum approved the main storyline, then the appearance of the Mona Lisa, the background, everything.

Do you believe the “Mona Lisa: Beyond the glass”  is a revolutionary experience? Can we talk about the before and the after of the Mona Lisa VR experience?

I believe that Mona Lisa has opened new perspectives for museums. If the biggest and most visited museum has used VR, other museums will also see new opportunities in the use of this technology to improve the visitor experience. But, I don’t think that the experience itself is revolutionary on a technological and content level.

After the first digital museum, MORI Digital Art Museum in Japan, and Atelier des Lumières in Paris, there has been a significant growth in immersive digital experiences in the world. What format do you think is more attractive for visitors: VR with headsets or VR immersive exhibitions?

I think a successful format looks like what we developed for ScanPyramids VR (with HIP Institute and Dassault Systèmes). It is a guided VR tour of the Khufu Pyramid for a group of 10 people at a 1:1 scale. It is immersive, collaborative and interactive.

Usually a VR experience, like Mona Lisa, is designed for individual use and you can also get it at home, so you don’t really need to go to the museum. The format that we developed creates the need to go to the place, and this makes it a real visit because you have to walk in real life.

So, what direction do you think VR will take in the future?

In my opinion, the key elements for VR are participation and interaction. It is not engaging to put the video in a VR headseat, even in 360 degrees or in 3D. It is nice, but it is just a type of a movie. The VR experience is much stronger.

At Emissive we focus only on interactive VR. For example, in ScanPyramids VR, the interaction consists of walking freely inside the pyramid, advancing through the story with our movements. It is a very simple interaction, but it is strong. The fact that you have a choice of changing the scenario and your point of view makes the experience more engaging and memorable.

Epilogue

As we see from the interview, virtual reality can be used as a research tool, posing new questions and developing new hypotheses for artworks. Similarly, virtual archaeology uses two-dimensional plans and sections of historic buildings and towns for recreating three-dimensional models and visualized them in virtual reality. But unlike stones, for the recreation of human portraits to make a 3D model or a VR is not enough. To relive portraits, once frozen on canvases by artists over many years, VR technologies should make characters 3D interactive and capable to have live conversations. Will it be possible soon? We’ll see.