AGO's ReBlink exhibit combines augmented reality and classic paintings

Artist Alex Mayhew knows that people often snap photos using their smartphones at art galleries — but he hopes that by incorporating an augmented reality app into the experience, visitors at the Art Gallery of Ontario will spend more time with paintings that sometimes go unnoticed.

The creator of ReBlink hopes to give people a new perspective on old pieces of art

Artist Alex Mayhew, the creator of ReBlink, says he hopes his exhibit keeps the memory of these older artists alive. (alexmayhew.com)

Artist Alex Mayhew knows that people often snap photos using their smartphones at art galleries — but he hopes that by incorporating an augmented reality app into the experience, visitors at the Art Gallery of Ontario will spend more time with paintings that sometimes go unnoticed.

"I wanted people to feel a connection by looking back at the past with a present-day lens," Mayhew said.

The exhibit, called ReBlink, uses a custom app for smartphones and tablets. Visitors download the app and use their device's camera to unlock Mayhew's modern twists on 10 historic works of art that are a part of the AGO's permanent collection.

By looking at a piece through a smartphone, visitors see the painting's subjects come to life through augmented reality.

An exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario is using augmented reality to give people a new perspective on historic art. 2:07

Mayhew says it would make him sad to see visitors at the museum walk by a beautiful painting or only spend a few seconds observing it.

"We have such short attention spans," Mayhew said. "We know that Instagram and mobile devices are kind of part of the problem. We thought it could also be part of the solution."

Mayhew loves to see the reaction of visitors. While it's usually the younger generation whipping out their smartphones at museums, he especially enjoys when the older generation appreciates his remixes.

Mayhew says the exhibit has resulted in younger visitors spending more time with the classic paintings. (Talia Ricci/CBC News)

"I think there's an initial delight, because of the technology. Just having the painting come to life, it kind of seems like magic. And then they start noticing the elements that are different," Mayhew said.

'The technology really worked'

John Leeson and Oxana Kuryliw, both AGO members, weren't initially sold on the idea when they read about it online. However, after seeing the exhibit in person, they were delighted.

"As soon as we used the tablet it really came to life; it was quite amazing" Leeson said. "The way they were animated, the humour and the technology really worked."

John Leeson and Oxana Kuryliw enjoyed the modern take on the classic paintings. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

Kuryliw has a background in art and says the app is a good way to get more people interested.

"You start asking questions like, 'What were these people doing then and what has happened since then?'" Kuryliw said. "If it stops you and makes you ask questions then you've succeeded as an artist."

'Really popular'

Keri Ryan, the AGO's director of learning and interpretation, says the exhibit was initially supposed to be over in December but was extended because it's been such a hit. It will now run until April 8.

"ReBlink has been really popular with a lot of different visitors," Ryan said. "What's been most surprising to me is that all ages have found something about that project that they can really connect to."

Ryan says the AGO has been dabbling in integrating technology and art over the last couple of years and they expect to see more exhibits like ReBlink in the future.

"We've been able to really leverage technology to help people see art in a different way. That's the real magic."