One can easily imagine a scenario where students in diverse locations are seated in front of their individual computer monitors attending a session where a teacher in some distant city is lecturing on Edvard Munch's paintings. The teacher, wanting to direct the students' attention to the brushstrokes, will zoom in on a relevant section so the students can examine the enlarged image on their monitors. These details can then be compared to those of paintings by other artists.
Alternatively, one may imagine a setting where groups of students are gathered around one of several "electronic blackboards" . The "electronic blackboard" is being manipulated by a teacher at some distant place for displaying texts, pictures and drawings in the presentation of art history. Alongside the "blackboard", a TV monitor allows the students to view the teacher and possibly also any participant with a question.
These are not scenarios of some distant future, they describe today's reality, providing the required technical equipment is made available. By taking full advantage of recent and future technological breakthroughs in the teaching of art history, we have the potential of offering decentralised training of high quality. Students outside the larger cities can be offered courses and training programs on par with those given at the universities. In fact, both groups of students can, and should benefit from technology which allows the student to acquire a more intimate familiarity with works of art than can be achieved through books or slide-presentations. In brief, the new technology is eminently suited for heightening the quality of the teaching of art history without making too great demands with regards to advanced equipment.
Recent advances in digital image processing allow minute details or multiple views of works of art to be accessed with ease and safety at small cost. New high resolution digital cameras which can record minute details in the picture, details which even a trained eye will miss. With the high optical quality of the images, one may uncover more details than are visible on a regular inspection at a museum. (Images of a silver tankard, scanned in with a digital camera at the University of Bergen give examples of the resolution which can be achieved. Detail also available) Combined with hypertext and hypermedia this enables one to explain aspects of pictures and present analyses which have hitherto been impossible to convey effectively.
Furthermore, it is now possible to retrieve the image of a painting, via the telephone network, and load it onto one's own personal computer. This will open new possibilities, especially after a gradual catalogization and systematization of all the art which is now found in museums around the world. Then one will be able to, for example, determine the number of paintings depicting the birth of Christ dating from a particular decade or century in Western Europe, or in Italy - or Rome. We can see that the future prospects in this field are breath-taking compared to what is within reach today.
Today it is technically possible to operate with three dimensional images. Using modern optical technology, particularly techniques using lasers, it is possible to obtain three dimensional information about an object. One example is the so-called range-pictures which give a correct description of the three dimensional form. Another interesting example is the hologram. To obtain this recording, an object is scanned from many different angles, but the resulting images are stored in a single picture in such a way that the three-dimensional image can be extracted and examined from all angles. This gives a flat representation of a three-dimensional object. Obviously, this gives room for many new approaches when working with sculpture and architecture. A black and white photograph of, for example, Bernini's sculpture of Apollon and Daphne does not give a very satisfactory representation of the characteristic qualities of this group. We cannot see that it is a round sculpture in the sense that Daphne is gradually transformed into a laurel tree as we move round the sculpture. With the help of the new techniques, we can rotate the image of the sculpture on the monitor screen to gain the same impression we would have in walking round it.
Applying the techniques of virtual reality (VR) as a tool for visualization, this can be valuable. At some point in the future we may substitute the photographs of Bernini's statue with images on large low-flicker screens where we might actually move round the image and observe it from all angles. This can however, only be achieved with computers much more powerful than what is available today. Note that VR is, at present, primarily used for computer games and other entertainment. We have a long way to go before we can achieve the image quality required in research.
Computer imaging is, in fact, not limited to three dimensions - representations in a larger number of dimensions are already being employed. Astronomers are, for example, charting the universe using data in five dimensions. Medical researchers does the same, they no longer limited to two dimensional imaging. Three dimensions are used to represent spatial volume. A fourth dimension may be used to represent the volume imaged by radiation at different frequencies (the appearance of an organ may vary when inspected using different frequencies, thus opening the possibility of additional information). The fifth dimension is time - certain images are expected to vary in time.
The equipment required for this kind of imaging is still prohibitively expensive for many purposes, but prices are falling steadily. The cost of a powerful work station has been reduced by a factor of 10 within the last few years. In a few years this kind of hardware will be within reach even of researchers in the humanistic disciplines with their limited budgets. In order to make full use of this potential, however, interdisciplinary collaboration is essential. The humanists must acquire some skills in mathematics and the mathematician must acquire some insight in art history. It is no longer sufficient to have skills in one discipline only since one cannot rely entirely on technical consultants to bridge the gap. For a fruitful collaboration it is imperative that all the involved parties speak the same language, they must all be familiar with the various terminology. Unless this is ensured, we risk sitting a meetings believing that we are understanding one another when, in fact, we are at cross purposes. Perhaps the new computer technology requires a type of Renaissance individuals, particularly a dose of Renaissance humanism a counterbalance. This will be the most significant challenge to our discipline as we approach year 2000.