Is it possible to engineer the discovery of art?
In 2013, two graduate students in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) set out to answer that question, and today, thanks to their work as research assistants — there’s an app for that!
Artbot, developed by Desi Gonzalez and Liam Andrew in the HyperStudio research group of Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W), is a mobile website app that mines both user preferences and event tags to provide serendipitous connections to the local art scene.
Artbot enables users to select their interests from a list that ranges from medieval art to surrealism and from ancient history to photography. At the same time, the app scrapes data from museum websites to find artists, movements, and themes that link events to each other in various ways. Artbot then cross-references the data collected to generate event recommendations.
“Each recommendation system has certain methods and assumptions baked into it, and determining what kinds of inputs belong can be more of an art than a science,” explains Andrew, who drew upon his previous experience as a software engineer to develop Artbot’s recommendation engine. “At HyperStudio we hope to challenge users by making unique connections and new introductions, so long as users are ultimately delighted and informed.”
The ultimate goal, the students say, is to encourage a greater understanding and appreciation of art. “I came to this project with the goal to get content to people in new ways and get them to continue to engage with the art institutions,” says Gonzalez, who previously worked on multimedia apps and interactive learning at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The point is not to promote any particular museum, artist, or genre, but rather to encourage meaningful, sustained relationships to art museums in the Boston area. “We want people to realize there are more than one, two, or three museums,” Andrew says.
Currently, Artbot highlights events at eight area museums: the deCordova Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Institute of Contemporary Art, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Museum of Fine Arts, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Rose Art Museum. Both developers say they believe Artbot could eventually expand to include more Boston institutions and perhaps even more cities.
Artbot is currently in beta testing and the developers are in talks with MIT startup Trill, an online entertainment website founded by Kathleen Stetson MBA ’14 and others, to host and support Artbot’s future growth. “We will be working with Trill directly, sharing our code as well as many of our technical challenges, resources, and research,” say Gonzales and Andrew. “It will be up to Trill to decide how to integrate Artbot into their product; the current plan is to adopt some of Artbot’s core technologies and gather insights from user testing.”
The hope is that partnering with Trill will help popularize the app, but the developers stress that the Artbot code will remain available for others to adopt as well. “This is the HyperStudio approach” Fendt says. “We are primarily a research lab, rather than a long-term host for a public-facing project like Artbot. Our mission is to come up with very innovative approaches and development models that can be applied in different domains.”
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See Also: “Playful engineering: Designing and building art discovery systems”
A paper about Artbot presented at MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015 conference held in Chicago last month.