Public Art in Raleigh, N.C., Goes Digital with Help from Google

A 40-by-60-foot mural in the capital city springs to life with the help of an augmented reality smartphone app. Google and artist Taylor White partnered on the project, believed to be the first of its kind.

by David Menconi, The News & Observer / February 8, 2019
Shutterstock/ESB Professional

(TNS) — Many murals are pretty straightforward. But “Abstracted Motion” in downtown Raleigh has the potential to leap from the wall.

Painted by Raleigh artist Taylor White, the 40-by-60-foot mural has been on a north-facing wall of the Alfred Williams Building since the fall. Viewed with the naked eye, it shows five figures in shades of purple and blue, hitting an array of poses.

But when it’s viewed with an accompanying Android mobile-phone app, “Abstracted Motion” is almost a different piece of work altogether with extra layers, nooks and crannies. It’s one of the world’s first “augmented reality” murals.

The “Abstracted Motion” app from the Google Play store recently went live. When viewers download it and point it toward the mural, it comes alive as a three-dimensional image you can film, alter or edit in your phone.

“It will be what people do with this thing,” said Samuel Payne, of Google, the San Francisco-based creative lead for the project, this fall. “The application records video and sees photos as you see it. So some individual who finds the right lighting could do some really cool things with an interesting sky in the background.”

While the address of “Abstracted Motion” is 410. S. Salisbury St., known as the Alfred Williams building, it can be seen on West Davie Street at the corner of Gale Street. The mural is sponsored by Google to mark Raleigh as a “Fiber City.” Google contacted the Raleigh Murals Project to connect with an artist and seek an appropriate wall for a canvas.

Previously, White has painted works adorning local businesses, including Raleigh Raw and Whiskey Kitchen. For models on this project, White worked with local dancers from Durham’s Living Arts Collective, photographing them in various poses.

Because White’s painting had to mesh with Google’s AR programming just so, this was the most difficult and complicated mural she has ever done. Getting the app synced with the visuals also took longer than anticipated.

“There are so many precise details, sizes and angles that needed to be exactly right,” she said this fall. “The poses also had to be as varied as possible, to have points for the computer map to pick up. So I had to design a striking stand-alone image, do justice to what is probably the best wall in town. But I also had to make the design so it would be read by the AR technology. That added another layer to the design process.”

Google Collaboration

Virtual reality, which generally involves being put into a digital space that doesn’t actually exist, has been getting all the headlines lately. But augmented reality, which projects digital aspects into the real world, might actually have more practical applications.

“Augmented reality is useful or beautiful virtual elements that blend with the real world through lenses,” said Payne this fall. “You could have signs pointing you in the right direction, or restaurant reviews that pop up when you’re walking down the street, or cartoon characters come to life. Or in this case, this magical art created by Taylor.”

“Abstracted Motion” involved a lot of cooperation between White, project producer Raleigh Murals Project and Google, thanks to the engineering aspect. It had to look good while conforming to exacting technical specifications, White said.

“What’s so exciting is that both sides of the table were pushed in a way they’re usually not,” said Alan Mitchell, product marketing manager for Google in Raleigh. “Getting the AR piece right so that it fits the artwork, that’s never been done before. Both sides, art and technical, had to be put in kind of an uncomfortable zone to make it happen.”

Google has commissioned murals in other Fiber cities and has plans in the works for Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill. But the one in downtown Raleigh will be its only augmented-reality one for the foreseeable future, because it requires so much work and logistics.

“Blending technology is really hard to do,” said Payne. “Our eyes are geared up to see discrepancies. And the engineering process was very different. Usually with engineering, you’re just trying to make something work. But this was blending how it happens with the user’s experience and the artist’s true intentions.”

It was designed to be a landmark, too.

“There are a lot of trendy cities with an iconic mural everyone knows,” said Mitchell. “This one is an opportunity to create an epic image that everyone will know about and come to visit.”

Details

“Abstracted Motion” is at 410 S. Salisbury St. in downtown Raleigh. It faces West Davie Street to the north, between Gale Street to the west and South Salisbury Street to the east.

To download the app for Android, search for “Abstracted Motion” in the Google Play store. An iPhone version is not available.

©2019 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.