Reviewed April 2018
Time Based Media Conservation Fellow, The Art Institute of Chicago
Smartify is a free augmented-reality mobile application that allows users to scan and save photos of artworks while visiting museums and to gain access to ancillary content related to the artwork, such as scholarly information and artist commentary. The free app – available on both iPhone and Android platforms – uses image recognition technology to compare a user’s photo to a scanned image in the Smartify database. If there is a match, additional information about the artwork is displayed and the photo and related content can be saved to the user’s account. As of this review, there are thirty-six museums that are participating internationally. One can also browse highlights from participating institutions while not being physically present using the “explore” function.
Accounts are free but required in order to save photos to a personal collection, and the app requires access to a user’s camera as well as their location to identify nearby venues. Functionally, the app cannot operate without location access; it can be set to either always access the user’s location or to only access location while the app is in use. The developer, MOBGEN, partners with each institution to establish image access and copyright permissions for individual artworks. (Beyond the ability to add artworks to a user collection, no part of the app is customizable.) In order to increase accessibility, MOBGEN has also partnered with Wikimedia to offer descriptions and some supplementary content in ten languages. It is varies as to exactly how many artworks are stored in the Smartify database, since the number fluctuates as new venues and works are added or removed.
Though released less than a year ago, Smartify appears to be well supported and well funded. This is the first mobile application released by MOBGEN, a subsidiary of digital design and marketer Accenture Interactive, itself a subsidiary of international management consulting firm Accenture. Accenture Interactive is a large and fast growing agency, and its support for MOBGEN and Smartify is likely to continue. – pPublished reviews since its debut have all been positive and in February, Smartify won the “Most Innovative Mobile App” award at the Mobile World Conference’s Global Mobile Awards (GLOMOs).
For all its accolades, the app has low user ratings across both platforms, primarily due to its minimal data offerings. The company prides itself on establishing proper copyright permissions for access to art and information, but, even if a venue is a Smartify partner, the app can only identify and save photos of works that have a database match, an unfortunate discovery of this reviewer. If a work is not in the database, the scan function will simply continue scanning until it comes across a work it does recognize. This leaves the user rather high and dry if the museum only has temporary or special exhibitions on display with works that have not cleared copyright permissions. However, a geographically confined and enterprising user can still pull up an image on their computer to scan at home, though the only benefit would be to save the work to a personal account.
The relationship between art and augmented reality is on the upswing: in late January, the online art print retailer, art.com, released a feature on their iOS app that allows users to preview an artwork display on the user’s walls. Snapchat has begun collaborating with artists such as Jeff Koons to present virtual artworks in real-world environments. Smartify is an one of many interesting steps in this direction with a lot of potential but, due to copyright restrictions, slow implementation. For a user at a participating museum, positioned in front of a Smartify-permitted artwork, the app offers a new way to engage with the art, presenting an avenue for information access while in the physical presence of the work. Museums are always looking for new opportunities to entice their audiences, and it will be interesting to see how this app and others like it develop over time.