Art & Technology

Zemí Cohoba Stand: an AR experience with exceptional 3D modelling from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

An expert view brought to you by our XR Panel of artists and storytellers who create in virtual reality and augmented reality

The Metropolitan Museum of Art allows you to take home an ancient object

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Zemí Cohoba Stand

Created by: The Imaging Department (Barbara Bridgers, Scott Geffert, Xue Chen and Deepa Paulus), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

An augmented reality experience that allows you to place a zemí cohoba stand from around AD1000—the centrepiece of Arte del Mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean at the Metropolitan Museum of Art— in your own surroundings. As previously reported in The Art Newspaper, the wooden sculpture probably originated in today’s Dominican Republic. It is the central object in the Arte del Mar show, which was closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March, and reopened with the rest of the museum on 29 August. The exhibition runs until 27 June 2021.

Where to Find It

On the Met's website. Using browser-based Web Augmented Reality (WebAR). No app download required.

The AR model works on iOS devices, and best on an iPhone running iOS 13.4.1 or later. There is also a browser version for laptops, where you can at least experience the work in 3D. Our panellists were troubled by the lack of an Android version, given that globally Android users outnumber iOS users by 3 to 1.

They Say:

To share this zemí beyond the walls of the Museum in a time of suffering keeps with the original intent of providing inspiration to all those who experience its beauty

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Taíno concept of zemí pertains to the force of deities and ancestors that permeates the Caribbean landscape. This rare wooden image harnesses that environmental power into a particular zemí, a central figure in community ceremonies, including healing. To share this zemí beyond the walls of the Museum in a time of suffering keeps with the original intent of providing inspiration to all those who experience its beauty.

You can access the Zemi on a desktop, but the experience is less compelling

The XR panel's ratings

Gretchen Andrew gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Dhiren Dasu gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Carole Chainon gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Seol Park gave a rating of 4/5 stars.

Giving an overall panel rating of 4/5 stars*

*Eron Rauch did not give a star rating as he was not able to view the iPhone-only full experience. Seol Park likewise reduced her star rating because the full experience is not available on Android, the global market leader, when WebAR today can be made to work on both iOS and Android.

We Say:

With neither our modern homes nor contemporary relationships with hallucinogens defined by ritual, the zemí invited contemplation and comparison with the civilisation that created it

Gretchen Andrew: Steve Jobs supposedly invented the iPhone while on hallucinogens. Now, you can use an iPhone to experience a zemí, a stand from which a hallucinogenic powder was ritualistically snorted in AD1000. Compare that with the less ritualistic but not infrequent use of the iPad as a surface from which to snort controlled substances.  

Using the Met’s AR you can easily place the zemí around your house—something that could have been technically possible without this object being plundered from its native land. While other AR experiences this panel has reviewed have similar capabilities, I found the experience more compelling than with for-sale, contemporary work. Instead of wondering, “Does this belong above my couch?” I found myself very aware that zemí did not belong in my home at all.  The zemí is a piece of design in that it has a purpose, a use, a function. In trying to find where I might put it,I had to consider where in my home I would perform ritualistic ingestion of hallucinogens.  In the kitchen? At my computer desk? 

Where in the modern home would one ritualistically ingest hallucinogens?

With best-selling author Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018) and some slight easing on the US’s 1971 prohibition of studying hallucinogenic substances, this is possibly a relevant question. I do not mean to imply that a modern home is not a place where drugs are ingested. But with neither our modern homes nor contemporary relationships with hallucinogens defined by ritual, the zemí invited contemplation and comparison with the civilisation that created it.

In the bedroom? Certainly not between the couch and the TV? Did the Taíno civilisations do this inside at all? Should it be in the yard? It was impossible not to contemplate all this without finding myself curious about the lives of its ancient creators. The Met’s AR zemí accomplishes the best art can do for us; the experience invites self-reflection and a feeling of otherness.

Is the app easy to use?

Carole Chainon: One of the easiest experiences to launch so far—once you have a compatible Apple device with iOS 13.4 installed.

Dhiren Dasu: With the right hardware, yes. I am not an iPhone user. So I tried using an iPad with the appropriate iOS to no avail. I then borrowed a friend's iPhone and was able to view the zemí.

Seol Park: It's easy to launch the AR view and place the object in the user's space. There are a few tips on The Met's zemí AR web page that would have been helpful to include in the mobile AR view interface itself—such as, "Make sure your phone is not in the Silent Mode" or "Tap to rotate" (rather than "Tap to activate") It is confusing that the same tapping action on screen is used to display or hide the user interface (UI) elements (the AR/object toggle and the record/share buttons). When I tap wanting to display/hide the UI elements, sometimes I find the figure rotating instead, and vice versa.

Eron Rauch: I have an Android phone, so I couldn't open the app. I was able to access the model via downloading the usdz file from the site. It opens easily in Preview, but without the narration and AR. (Reality Converter is the name of a beta OSX app that will, in the future, allow more functionality with usdz files on desktops.)

How good is the art?

The Zemi guide is in Spanish and English

Carole Chainon: The artwork is extremely well done and the textures are very realistic. I appreciated having the article describing how they captured the zemí cohoba stand and optimised its structure—the 3D mesh—while keeping the same texture quality. The two-minute audio commentary is very interesting and helps the user appreciate the stand.

Dhiren Dasu: The quality of the rendering is superb. Shadows display realistically as well.

Seol Park: The quality of photogrammetry is excellent. It renders the surface texture of the object realistically. The brightness of the figure's display adjusts automatically, detecting high- or low-light conditions of the viewer's environment. Shadowing of the object is lightly done, though I didn't see the drop-shadow responding to the direction of the source of light in the viewer's environment.

Eron Rauch: The work itself is quite famous and historically important and the 3D model is exceptional.

What is gained by viewing in AR rather than In Real Life?

The Zemi drawn by Penny Slinger. Pencil and crayon on paper, 9 x 4 inches, 1990

Carole Chainon: I was not familiar with this exhibit nor the Taíno civilisations of the Antilles archipelago so I highly enjoyed discovering this artwork. This might have been a piece passed too quickly in a museum, but from home I found it very satisfying to be able to take my time—without having other museum visitors waiting behind me—and to get close to the artwork and scale it to human size for my personal viewing comfort.

Dhiren Dasu: My artistic mentor and frequent collaborator Penny Slinger worked extensively with the art of the Arawak/Taino people so I was quite familiar with the larger body of work as well as this particular Zemi. Having seen a beautifully rendered pencil drawing of this piece, I appreciated the additional level of detail that this 3D version provides.

Seol Park: The Met's zemí AR illustrates the potential new technologies such as AR and VR offer for bringing antiquities and material culture to life. It is such a treat to see a fascinating object with the curator's voice-over (English/Spanish) as if he is giving a private tour, and also to be able to get so much closer to the object than is possible at the museum. It's the second best thing to handling the object. Embracing technologies such as this helps the museum expand its reach within and beyond the United States —during a time of widespread closures of cultural institutions.

Eron Rauch: Simply having access to ultra-high-quality models of important sculptural works is an incredible resource for historians and lovers of art. You can virtually handle it in ways that aren’t available in a protective museum setting. Rotate it, zoom in, look underneath.

What medium-specific qualities of VR/AR does it employ?

Carole Chainon: It allows the audience to view artwork from any location, unencumbered by other museum visitors, and to interact with the artwork in ways they would never otherwise be able to.

Dhiren Dasu: Being able to view this piece in three dimensions at a detailed resolution with scaleability is something specific to AR. Viewing it on the tiled patio garden of my apartment complex made my experience with the work feel personal.

Seol Park: This production uses a combination of 3D imaging/modelling and AR to deliver a way to view a rare historical artefact from the comfort of home, while easily recording and sharing the experience with friends and family. It is ideal for engaging a young audience, and an excellent tool for educators.

Eron Rauch: Having these works of the non-Western canon available, through an AR experience, in your home brings with it an odd colonialist feel. Putting a zemí—"a central figure in community ceremonies" from an Indigenous civilisation of the Caribbean region—up on my modernist coffee table... just feels weird.

Does it break new ground technically?

The level of rendering and detail inherent in the implementation is the best of any AR I’ve seen. So kudos to the imaging team

Carole Chainon: 3D object placement experiences using WebXR started emerging about 2 years ago—an example being David Bowie’s spectacular costumes in augmented reality, presented by The New York Times in early 2018. The experience starts right from the article/browser, sparing the user from downloading an app. The user is instructed to scan the room for horizontal plane detections and the artwork is then placed directly in the user’s environment. Interactions are minimal: selecting the audio language and rotating/scaling the artwork. The quality of the artwork is the most impressive feat in this experience.

Dhiren Dasu: I don’t feel that it conceptually breaks any new ground. Having said that, the level of rendering and detail inherent in the implementation is the best of any AR I’ve seen. So kudos to the imaging team.

Seol Park: It was smart of Barbara Bridgers, Scott Geffert, Xue Chen, and Deepa Paulus at The Met to employ WebAR for this, rather than going with another method of AR production that requires the audience to download a specific app for viewing. WebAR can be embedded and distributed via a simple link and launches directly within user's Web browser. Having seen the evolution of the technology producing AR exhibits worldwide for the past 5 years, I have seen that the requirement to download a new app for one-time use presents a big hurdle to encouraging viewer participation.

Eron Rauch: From what I can tell with the documentation and model, it doesn't push at anything radical or expansive, but succeeds in doing the one thing it sets out to do. I also very much appreciate the extensive blog post about the technical process of turning an object into a quality 3D model. The terminology of “meshes” and “occlusion maps” isn't well known outside of specialists, but they should be better known since they are similar to understanding varnish or binders in painting. Nice that they let you download the file.

The Art Newspaper’s XR Panel

Gretchen Andrew is a Search Engine Artist and Internet Imperialist who programs her vision boards to manipulate the internet with art and desire.

Carole Chainon is the co-founder of JYC, a XR development and production studio based in Los Angeles with a presence in Europe, creating XR experiences for the entertainment and enterprise sector. She is also a Spark AR Creator.

Dhiren Dasu is a digital media creator and consultant. His areas of speciality include photography, film, virtual space, graphic design, visual effects, animation, and audio production. Dasu, in his fine art persona as Shapeshifter7, makes artworks that echo and recompose the architectural spaces he photographs, turning them into immersive spaces while exploring the nexus of photography, collage, symbols, and perception.

Seol Park lives at the intersection of technology, art, and branding. She has worked with technology leaders such as Microsoft and INTEL, produced XR content worldwide, and at present guides global branding at LG with emphasis on digital expressions and cultural engagement. Seol was named "4 Under 40" by Sotheby's Institute in 2019.

Eron Rauch is an artist, writer, and curator whose projects explore the infrastructure of imagination, with a focus on subcultures, video games, and photography history.