Google aims to bring the world's great art galleries into the home with a new website that offers virtual tours using Street View technology, the ability to build private collections and ultra-high resolution images.
While most big galleries have been busy making their works accessible online for years, experts told a launch at London's Tate Britain gallery on Tuesday that Google's site was looking to take the online art experience to a new level.
"It could be the game changer," said Julian Raby of the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian in Washington DC, which is one of 17 galleries taking part in the project.
Nelson Mattos, VP Engineering at Google, said the Art Project site (www.googleartproject.com) would allow children from Latin America, India and Africa, who were unlikely to see the originals, to come close to the experience on the internet.
"This really represents a major step forward in the way people are going to interact with these beautiful treasures of art around the world," he said, adding that Google planned to expand the site over the coming years.
Mattos and art curators at the launch said they were confident that no matter how advanced the technology, the new site would never replace visiting the museums.
"We obviously don't believe this technology is going to prevent people from coming to the museums," he added. "We hope that the opposite will happen."
Amit Sood, the Google employee who started Art Project from scratch during time his employer freed up for personal initiatives, explained how the company used its Street View technology to develop virtual tours.
Cameras mounted on a special trolley travelled through empty galleries after the public had left, taking 360 degree images of selected rooms which were then stitched together. So far 385 rooms are navigable, and more will be added.
Each of the 17 museums involved also chose one artwork to be photographed using "gigapixel" photo capturing technology, resulting in an image on the computer containing seven billion pixels and providing detail not visible to the naked eye.