September 26, 2019
Boulevard Arts is the leading developer of arts-based immersive reality experiences for art, culture and education. The company partners with the world’s leading museums to share their collections through virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology. With unparalleled knowledge of and access to the arts, Boulevard is able to create exceptional, content-rich and user-controlled experiences that make art and culture accessible in everyday life.
Boulevard’s main mission is to educate and encourage inquiry and engagement. Central to Boulevard’s ideology is the belief that access to art and culture and life-long learning are essential to living a well-informed and well-rounded life. The enhanced reality experiences Boulevard offers complement education curriculum across disciplines and open up new possibilities for learning.
We sat down with Elizabeth L. Reede, Co-Founder and CEO, to learn more about how Boulevard is reshaping the landscape of storytelling and revolutionizing the way the world looks at art and culture.
What is Boulevard Arts?
According to Elizabeth, the goal of the company, when it first started, was “to be able to make art and culture available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.” The best way to do that is through technology which can be driven off of smart devices of all types. When it comes to making arts and culture more widely accessible, Elizabeth emphasizes that she defines “art and culture” very broadly. “I think of it as pretty much anything that is a manifestation of our human existence and of who we are as people.” While that includes all of the art in the world’s museums, it also comprises the buildings we pass when walking down the street, parks, landscape architecture, and so on. Art and culture should not be thought of as exclusively high-brow concepts. Boulevard seeks to highlight and bring these aspects of humanity into everyday life, and make them interesting and experiential for a wide range of people.
In doing so, the company is focused on adding as much bonus information to its experiences as possible. In the case of museums, this means that when you “visit” a gallery, you are getting more out of this trip than you would from just walking through the space without a curator or guide to explain things to you.
That being said, Elizabeth also recognizes that for some people, who live in remote areas of the world or who can not visit museums for a whole host of other reasons, just being able to experience art from far-away locations can be incredibly valuable and mind-opening. “It’s pretty awesome for someone who’s never even had the opportunity to think about seeing the British Museum in person be able to put on a pair of VR glasses, pick up their device and ‘go there’. If we’re going to offer that, though, we want to make the immersive experience even better.”
Boulevard’s approach is about providing options. If you want to virtually visit a museum or gallery and simply observe the art, that’s possible. But if you want to learn more and engage with the objects or the environment, that’s also possible. “Each of the experiences is built to be user-driven. You aren’t being dragged around from point A to point B. You might decide to go from point A to point Z, and come back again. We present our users with that choice.” By providing this interactivity and flexibility, Boulevard is able to vastly increase its audience.
Boulevard Arts is the product of the intersection between an idea whose time has come, a set of groundbreaking technological advances and an impactful meeting of two avid history buffs, dedicated to the concepts of spreading knowledge and creating learning opportunities.
Elizabeth has a background in business and finance, a life-long interest in technology and a professional history in curatorial work. She also has graduate degrees in both finance and art history. When she was introduced to Robert Hamwee, CEO at New Mountain Finance Corporation, she had been working at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for several years. Their first meeting, which Elizabeth thought might take 30 minutes, ended up lasting for a couple of hours. “Basically what happened was, as we talked, we found many areas in which we were aligned, especially in terms of the importance of education and wanting to share this technology.”
Elizabeth tested the first iteration of the virtual reality experience on a primitive version of the technologies available today (an Oculus system called the DK1), and, even though it was rough around the edges, she was sold. Because the technology was still unexplored, she knew that getting into the industry so early was a huge opportunity. There were still lots of issues to work out, but Elizabeth agreed to continue testing the program as a consultant. For the next two months, she spent time telling various people about this idea of using immersive technologies to democratize access to art and culture. Their reactions were overwhelmingly positive, and three months later – at the end of 2013, she and Rob co-founded Boulevard Arts.
In the beginning of 2014, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook acquired Oculus for over two billion dollars. Elizabeth said that was when they realized, “Wow, this wasn’t just an idea we had. This could really turn into something.” She said that, in many ways, everything just seemed to come together, a coalescence she attributes to shared interests between herself and Rob, accompanied by incredibly serendipitous timing.
At present, Boulevard Arts offers many different experiences to their users in VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) or MR (mixed reality). Within each of those platforms, Boulevard has created multiple apps. Elizabeth says that, since Boulevard is still a small company, it is constantly adding new content whenever it can. The technology develops quickly, but recent advances in AR software will allow for the experiences to be more accurate. Elizabeth says this is especially exciting because AR has turned out to be the platform that most people can get their hands on. She even compares Boulevard’s AR apps to Pokémon Go, in terms of the size of the audience they are able to reach.
When asked to give an example of one of Boulevard’s apps, Elizabeth told us about a virtual reality experience that brings users to the Wolfson Room at the Courtauld Gallery in London. It features eleven masterworks of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism by Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin. To give me an idea of how the experience is so much more than a simple “virtual tour,” she explained that users can move around the gallery and zoom in on any work. They can also listen to award-winning author Neil Gaiman narrate the experience. In this way, users are able to learn more about the art they are seeing than they would by simply reading the wall labels. Even more exciting, when users approach Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, they can actually “step inside” the painting. The primary subject of Manet’s work is a barmaid, who is activated to offer the user a series of items within the painting. “She doesn’t speak with you, but she gestures, and it’s all based on where your eye is landing. If you’re looking at the mandarin oranges on the bar top, she will pick one up, and offer it to you.” Elizabeth says, “It’s just magnificent. And, if you turn around, you can actually see back out into the gallery.”
Adding to the engagement factor of these experiences are two unique features:
One: A user is provided a deeper understanding of the social, cultural and economic context of the painting. “To see mandarin oranges in a 19th-century Parisian bar…it’s not like there were citrus trees in the middle of Paris. It’s indicative of economic trade and the value of luxury items, like fresh fruit in the winter. Now it’s not just a beautiful painting. The user realizes that the artist is actually sharing something unique about his environment.” These are the details that most people tend to miss when they are simply admiring art in a museum, and Boulevard is dedicated to providing that kind of key contextual information for its users.
Two: Users are given access to objects, documents and cultural artifacts from various collections that they would normally never be able to see or experience in this way. The virtual reality app that Boulevard created with the British Museum is a great example of this. “We built an opportunity for the user to go into the Reading Room at the British Museum. It’s the Round Library, in the center of the museum, that has actually been closed to the public for years. In the experience, a map shows up, and you pick a geographic region to visit. You can see what was being created in China at a particular time in history, what was being created in North America, and so on. You suddenly get this visual comparison across cultures, or across chronologies, if that’s the entry point you choose–and that’s just one of the amazing things that VR technology is capable of.”
A Focus on Education
One of Boulevard’s most promising components is their “virtual field trip.” By using Boulevard’s apps, schools can participate in virtual trips, offering their students the opportunity to experience cultural monuments and landmarks around the world. One of the points on which Elizabeth and Rob first connected in their initial meeting was the importance of education. “Look, I think we all know, if people are educated, their quality of life and what they are able to achieve is vastly enhanced.” Elizabeth insists that even something as simple as grasping the logic of our own urban architecture can make us feel more engaged with our environment and able to understand how our civilization is manifest in myriad fascinating ways within the material world around us.
When it comes to her own sense of cultural appreciation, Elizabeth admits that she didn’t really fall in love with art and culture until the end of high school. “I was always the kid who didn’t want to go to the museum. I wanted to run around and play basketball, or something like that. I was a senior in high school, and I took my first art history class, and that light just went on for me.” Now she’s dedicated to creating similar experiences for as many people as possible. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a life-long learner or someone who has never set foot in any kind of cultural setting. It only takes the smallest bit of interest, and you can truly see that light go on in people’s eyes.”
In Elizabeth’s mind, education is about giving someone a sense of ownership over a thought or an idea. This inspires a natural self-confidence that develops and prompts the person to continue exploring. One of the ways that Boulevard is inspiring that confidence is by partnering with textbook publishing companies. For one company, Boulevard is developing augmented reality activities, which are directly integrated into the company’s course for ninth-grade English. The app includes poetry, Dada collages, historical artifacts and more. Instead of sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture about grammar and composition, students are able to learn those basic skills through activities included in the AR experience. “Thankfully, educators and schools finally acknowledge the research which shows that everyone learns differently and everybody expresses things differently. This technology affords people the chance to learn in the most effective way for them.”
Because Boulevard Arts’ story is so fascinating, we wanted to share more about the company’s inner workings, how it has convinced old-fashioned institutions to embrace new technology, and where Boulevard is going in the future. So check out Part II, which will soon be issued.
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