San Francisco

SFMOMA Is Putting the ‘AR' in ‘Art' With Augmented Reality Exhibits

Surrealist painter Rene Magritte's work is featured alongside a high-tech interactive gallery, and now, the museum is experimenting with a gamelike smartphone experience created by a startup around the corner

What to Know

  • PlaySFMOMA is an initiative to put interactive games alongside galleries, to help people understand the artwork in a different way
  • "Son of Man" painter Rene Magritte's work is on display with an augmented reality gallery of high tech puzzles at the end of the exhibit
  • SF startup Ubiquity6 was invited to test its multiplayer smartphone-based AR games at SFMOMA, and could be part of future exhibits

With his paintings of men in bowler hats and rocks floating amid the clouds, surrealist painter Rene Magritte was fascinated with the line between what's real and what's not.

"In certain ways, Magritte was predicting AR and VR 60 to 70 years before they began to exist," said Chad Coerver, SFMOMA's chief content officer.

Coerver has been heavily involved in the museum's exploration of AR — augmented reality — as a tool to help people understand art better. It's an initiative called PlaySFMOMA.

"Our job is to make as many people as possible feel that modern art is relevant to their lives," he said. "Play and games and digital experiences are all just part of a portfolio of experiences we offer that help get them there."

Magritte's work is on display at the museum with an interactive gallery by frog design that's filled with digital puzzles based on the artist's paintings. As people roam through the exhibit snapping photos with their smartphones — a practice SFMOMA actually encourages — Coerver and his staff are considering making those phones a more central part of the museum experience.

In a massive one-night play test, San Francisco-based startup Ubiquity6 — which just announced $27 million in new funding — was invited to hand out a hundred Apple iPhones in the museum's lobby, loaded with new multiplayer augmented reality software. By looking through the phones' cameras, guests were invited to explore Magritte's bizarre universe, creating apples, pipes and bowler hats for others to find as they went along.

Watch the video above to see the app in action, and learn why SFMOMA wants to create more experiences like it.

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