Seeing Gaudi’s Casa Batlló through augmented reality Credit: Image credit: Börkur Sigurbjörnsson via Flickr
Virtualization

Seeing Gaudi’s Casa Batlló through augmented reality

As I stepped inside the Casa Batlló, a spectacular building in Barcelona designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi in 1904, I was immediately handed a small tablet. It was a bit bigger than a smartphone with some earphones and I assumed it was going to be a straight-forward audio guide. But as I pointed the tablet at the rooms while I walked around, I could see rooms on the device change to the period when the Batlló family resided in the building. Pointing the tablet at the bare floor suddenly showed a colourful rug on the device. A sofa appeared against the wall and other decorative items laid out around the room. Suddenly I was back in the 1900s thanks to the augmented reality device I was holding in my hand. It was pretty impressive stuff and unlike anything I had seen before.

How was this made possible?

“We conducted research for a year and a half [looking at] all the images that we have back from the mid-1900s of how the building was, where the furniture was, and how the rooms looked. We then 3D rendered the whole of the inside of Casa Batlló as it was back in the beginning of the last century. From the technology point of view, it combines augmented reality with virtual reality,” Gary Gautier, Director General at Casa Batlló tells me over the phone from Barcelona.

Gautier says the idea for the augmented reality video guide came about after celebrating the 10th anniversary opening of Casa Batlló in 2012 by projecting colourful audio-visual mapping on its facade. Gautier says the show was a huge hit with the people of Barcelona.

“We thought that if people got so fascinated with the facades then what can we do to offer the same experience on the inside?”

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This then led to the creation of the augmented reality video guides. But as I was walking around the building in the sweltering heat (trying my best not to pass out), I wondered how accurate the representation of the items in each of the rooms were. 

“They are 100% accurate. We actually have the old pictures in black and white of how the rooms looked. You can compare them, they are 100% percent similar. We just added colour. The only thing we have added on top of reality was the secret techniques Gaudi used to enhance the ventilation in the rooms and also the allusions to nature that he somehow shows in a non-direct way and are subject to interpretation,” Gautier tells me.

But the journey in making this technology available to visitors was not an easy one. The delicate nature of the camera being able to recognise images or points combined with huge amounts of visitors (up to two or three thousand visitors in one day in high season) made the experience “terrible”.

“As soon as someone was crossing in front of you, the image was gone. This was happening the whole time. Depending on the amount of light in each room that the sun was giving, the experience could also not be robust.”

So Gautier and his team decided for those rooms to use virtual reality instead. This ensured that no matter whether you had someone standing in front of you or not, you had access to good experience on your device. But now Gautier is looking to enhance the experience even more by adding an indoor-tracking system based on more than “100 beacons hidden all over the building”. Gautier will be able to know where a visitor is within 50cm margin of error.

“We are not getting into their privacy. We are just knowing the path they are doing. By knowing their path we will be able to see if they have skipped a room, for instance. If they have spent double-time than usual in another room and by knowing this information we will be able to improve our video guide. The goal is to eventually personalise the experience.”

Gautier also envisions personalising the experience further by placing the beacons at certain points to send messages to the video guides like “Today we have a blue sky. Look at how the colours reflect…” or in turn if the visitor has not seen “room number four” then the visitor will not receive that message.

When will this indoor-tracking feature be added?

“At the moment we are installing the beacons and we are in the fine-tuning phase. So we expect to be able to gather information during the month of September so by Christmas we might have a huge amount of data that will allow us to start bringing changes and improvements to the visit.”

Gautier says the technology has been mostly designed “in-house” in their IT department at Casa Batlló. But they work with about seven other companies, external advisors, and with the University of Valencia, department of robotics.

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Is augmented reality becoming quite popular across museums in Spain? Or is this only unique to what Casa Batlló are doing at the moment?

“It’s quite popular all over the world, especially Europe. I follow many other museums to see what they are doing as there’s tons of them doing augmented reality and immersive reality projects. The only difference that we still have from all the others is that ours is the most advanced from a technological point of view.”

Although admittedly I have not seen many examples of augmented reality being used in museums in England, it is not difficult to imagine Gautier is right. The whole experience of using the device at Casa Batlló was seamless with high quality imaging. It is hard to imagine anyone matching that. Gautier even says that in their latest venture of developing indoor tracking systems, they went through “14 different enterprises offering beacon solutions” but none could guarantee “the accuracy and output” they were looking for. So they ended up doing it themselves.

Finally, looking back on the whole experience, it would have been fun to have seen Gaudi or even the Batlló family in the rooms with us, perhaps eating at the dining table while we had a wander around.

I put this to Gautier and he laughs.

“Yes, this was one of the ideas. Something we have tried very hard to be careful with is not to cross the line. We treat all these innovations with a very delicate point of view and always back it up with some Gaudi experts that work in several universities in Barcelona to make sure the point of view is respectful with the artist and true with history.”

“We could start adding tons of things. Trust me we have a lot of ideas but fine-tuning technique or strategy is to not to go beyond the borders. If you keep on adding things to the video guide, what you are doing at the end is virtualising the tour. So people will no longer look where they are because all their attention will be on their tablet. We want them to look outside of their device and take pictures and admire the real work of Gaudi,” Gautier adds.

I agree with Gautier and I think at the moment the balance between the two is just right.

As our conversation draws to a close, there is one final surprise. I ask whether Gautier thinks the Batlló family would have been pleased with the augmented reality experience.

“There’s actually one Batlló descendent living with us at Casa Batlló. She’s in her 80s and lives on the third floor. She doesn't live everyday here but we see her some days in the week and she has a flat from that period with all the original furniture in her apartment. She’s very happy with that! We have a really nice relationship with her and she gives us some history on how things were done before.”

“The only thing is when she wants to get out of her apartment, there's a lot of people on the elevator and the path to the exit!”

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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