Why Google's Art and Culture app's selfie mode fails to impress

Updated: 23 January, 2018 10:20 IST | Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

mid-day tests Google's Art and Culture app's selfie mode and comes away unimpressed

An artwork the reporter was matched with
An artwork the reporter was matched with

Last week, the Google Arts and Culture app rolled out their already popular new 'selfie' feature in India, which lets users click a selfie, upload it to the app, and let the Google AI (artificial intelligence) find a similar 'match' to works of art from museums. mid-day took a test drive to see what the selfie-artwork hoopla is all about.

Another painting the app matched his selfie to
Another painting the app matched his selfie to

The app shot to the top of the 'most downloaded free apps' this week - a feat that could be entirely attributed to the launch of this new feature, which also quickly became a favourite with Hollywood celebrities. And why shouldn't it? After all, the app-to-user engagement this feature provides is phenomenal, considering one can see what work of art they resemble.

But first, take a selfie
But how does it work? Once users download the app, they will have to scroll down on the homescreen to avail the selfie feature, and simply follow instructions (Note: don't waste your time looking for a separate button for the feature; it doesn't exist). Accept the terms, click a selfie, and Google then throws up a prompt showing 'portraits from international museums that could inspire you.'

This painting isn't me
Now, I might not be a connoisseur of refined paintings, or an appreciator of acrylic traces across a canvas, but even to me, the new feature came with some flaws. To begin with, none of my portrait lookalikes resembled me, and most artwork matches that the prompt threw up were either of an American background (keep in mind that the app was first launched in the United States) or from European museums.

Furthermore, even the museums to which the artwork belongs are mostly based in the US and Europe. This could have been a problem in 2011, when the program, then termed as The Google Art Project, was partnered with 17 museums mostly located either in the US or Western Europe. However, today, the program has spread across 70 countries and 1,500 cultural institutions. Despite that, the app barely matches with artwork from museums in other parts of the world.

Colour me optimistic
Keeping in mind that it has been termed by Google as a 'new and experimental feature,' one could be optimistic about the tech giant expanding and refining its database in the near future to include art from all over the world. After all, it has barely been a few days since the feature was launched in India.

On a lighter note, for those of you who are worried that this feature might lead to some privacy concerns as far as facial recognition is concerned, it prompts the user before taking the selfie by saying "Google won't use data from your photo for any other purpose and will only store your photo for the time it takes to search for matches."

What the tech giant says
A Google spokesperson said, "At Google Arts & Culture, our software engineers are always experimenting with new and creative ways to connect you with art and culture. That's how this selfie feature came about too… and over the past few days, people have taken more than 30 million selfies. Looking at its success in the US, we are excited to roll out this feature in other countries, including India."

No. of countries the program has spread to

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First Published: 23 January, 2018 10:18 IST

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