Google Lens at the de Young museum

In June of 2019, the de Young museum launched a pilot utilizing the latest in Google’s smartphone technology—Google Lens. Produced in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, Google Lens helps museum visitors search what they see in the galleries by simply pointing their smartphone camera at a work of art. The objectives to the experiment were threefold: first, to facilitate the easy discovery of works in the museum’s collection; second, to test mobile experiences that were not limited to separate, downloadable apps; and, third, to work with artists to test and interrogate new technology.

Our target audience was onsite visitors with smartphones (iOS and Android), specifically younger, tech-savvy visitors. We hoped to expand our audience base beyond our highest-engaged base of 55+ year old visitors. We also sought to build off previous success in developing more engaging, interpretive digital offerings for our visitors. Our educational digital guides, Insights, brought in 4–5 times longer engagement time than our standard digital offerings, and we anticipated a similar increase in engagement via a mobile experience with custom content offerings.  

The Google Lens experience launched with a tour of the artists and hidden stories of the roughly 250 paintings in our American art collection, and also a witty, playful alternative exhibition and tour of the de Young’s free public spaces by contemporary artist Ana Prvački. While the first offered a standard model in utilizing new technology, the latter challenged both Google and our museum visitors to call into question the very applications and possibilities of the technology itself.

In the exhibition Detour, that was on view at the de Young from June 11, 2019–January 5, 2020, artist Ana Prvački, known for her participatory projects that use humor as a means to disarm traditional museum activities and behaviors, invited visitors to view the museum experimentally, rather than as an exhibition venue. Using Google Lens, she developed a tour that led visitors around the museum to look anew at the building, grounds, and collections, and imagine different ways of viewing, connecting, and behaving. The alternative tour included a series of videos to impart lessons in careful observation, human biology, and mythology — ultimately using this new technology to connect users to the spaces around them and, eventually, to wrench their attention from the screen altogether.