The year digital art gets personal

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Only half of us visited a museum or gallery last year. Despite having a smorgasbord of cultural opportuntities on our doorstep, it’s hard to find the time to experience more than a taste of what’s out there.

But things are changing fast, and digital technology is continuing to help the arts leap stone walls and defy time zones. Great art is no longer waiting until you find the time (or the inclination) to seek it out: it’s seeking you out first.

The latest Digital Culture figures from the UK show more than 55% of arts and cultural organisations are optimising their content for mobile. The growth in smartphone ownership means almost two-thirds of internet users can activate cultural content at the click of the button.

You can already examine the microscopic fibres in Water Lilies while riding the bus, and over the next year art will become more integrated with our physical routines.

The rollout of 4G to 90% of the population and flourishing public Wi-Fi will enable a “digital arts layer” for the physical world. Activating art with your mobile phone can feel like opening a door to an alternate (and much more colourful) reality – where ordinary tasks feel more like a trip to the theatre.

The arts group Metal are creating Netpark, so we can enjoy digital artworks while walking the dog. This might involve sound, images and stories built around features and places without leaving any physical trace within the natural environment of the park.

Sing London is livening up the tube-to-office walk by bringing statues to life. Using our mobile phones, we can now invoke a theatrical recording from the likes of Sherlock Holmes, reminding us of the incredible stories we too often forget in the city crush.

Works like Hello Lamppost have fascinated festival audiences since 2011 by giving inanimate street objects the power to converse with people via text messages.

In 2015, cheaper digital technology will enable more permanent, pervasive installations in more places as local authorities look for sustainable long-term solutions.

In theory this could allow squeezed arts budgets to go further, if smarter digital working, and sharing of content across jurisdictions, reduces overheads and physical installation costs.

Alongside art activated with your mobile device, we’ll see more works built around ambient triggers (meaning they don’t wait for you to click), like rain, light or even your own shadow.

The “playable city” movement (which is aiming to make our cities fun and playful as well as smart and efficient) is fostering more playful installations like musical swings installed in public places.

Intelligent screens that not only display video but have cameras and sensors to capture content and process it live will engage random passers-by in creative exchanges.

One example is the TILO system installed at FACT Gallery in Liverpool, which can use its camera to scan your face, match it to your image in its database and change its display to suit your interests, such as suggesting films you might like.

Over half of arts and cultural organisations are using data to refine their offering around your needs, and R&D practices like user-centred design will ensure cultural products and services are more user-centric than ever before.

In 2015, for example, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum will use 3D filming and natural language processing to enable meaningful engagement with those no longer with us, creating interactive experiences that are goosepimply real.

Disability-led initiative Freewheeling are building a system of integrated 360° recording, editing and display technologies which will allow more people to enjoy immersive experiences in their homes through portable headsets.

Equal access to art will leap forward in 2015, as emerging technologies allow you navigate step-filled venues or avoid crowded noisy places.

These shifts have the potential to broaden access to the arts and culture, including among lower-income earners and people with disabilities.

We’ll also see immersive digital art tools inspire classrooms and transform pedagogies, and many more will be accessible to people in developing countries, with free or cheap software connecting basic items of equipment.

The Pop-Up Playspace, for instance, will wire up a simple set of cameras and projectors to enable safe, new mixed-reality digital play spaces for kids to experiment with theatrical techniques. And Sonic Pi, a live music coding tool for kids will be used in more classrooms, enabled via £30 Raspberry Pi computers and free software.

Artists and cultural institutions will continue to create experiences that defy predictability. Some of it may be mind-bending, some might be funny and some might be downright creepy, but advancing technology guarantees its reach is about to get wider, deeper and more sophisticated than ever before.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Museums Journal, based on a piece for Nesta’s 2015 prediction series.

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