The idea behind the experience created by the Paris VR studio Emissive is to teach you more about the painting and history around the Mona Lisa, so you can better appreciate it in person. At the same time, users who can’t get to the Louvre can get the same experience from the comfort of their home.
HTC has a special room inside the exhibition with 11 Vive Cosmos headsets where visitors can try it out. “It’s the first time that we are using virtual reality as an experience for visitors within the Louvre,” said the museum’s director of interpretation and cultural programming, Dominique de Font-Réaulx.
HTC let me preview the experience, then brought me to the Louvre to see the exhibition ahead of the public opening. The idea was to give me the entire experience as the public might see it.
The key idea that the team wanted to get across was how da Vinci’s otherworldly talent and intense scientific curiosity transformed how art was created. “The composition and the technique he used was a revolution at this time because he created a new way of painting people,” Emissive art director Emmanual Gorinstein told Engadget.
Donning the headset at Emissive’s studio, I first learned that the “canvas” was actually a poplar wood panel with a repaired split at the top. After that, I saw how infrared scans revealed da Vinci’s famous sfumato technique of layering paint to create the subtle gradations between light and dark that you see in the real world.
From there, things got more interesting. The narration debunked myths that the painting’s subject was a low-born person or even a prostitute who wore her hair down. Rather, she was wearing her hair in a veil and simply had a few hanging curls. That’s not perfectly clear in the painting, but the infrared images show it more clearly.
On top of that, she’s wearing a dress with a gold-colored fabric that only a noble person would have possessed. That helps affirm the idea that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the wealthy silk trader Francesco del Giocondo (which is why the painting is known as La Gioconda in France).
The most dramatic reveal in Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass is a 3D-modeled version of the woman herself. The VR artists used X-ray, infrared and refractive data gathered by the Louvre to infer what her face and body probably looked like, and they studied perspective to deduce the length of her nose and other details. They also did a detailed recreation of her clothes, to the point of making sure that they folded realistically when she moved.
Emissive’s team also attempted to recreate the fantastical background behind the subject. They first removed her from the background, then extended it out and tried to guess what it would look like.
“The landscape behind Mona Lisa was never intended to be a realistic one,” said Gorinstein. “Rather, it comes from da Vinci’s imagination and his knowledge of geography in the region, and is part of the magic that makes the painting so mysterious.”
Finally, they placed the 3D version of Mona Lisa in front of the newly recreated background and posed her just as she is in the painting. That essentially put me in Leonardo’s place, seeing her as he might have done. At the end of the experience, I soared around the magical landscape in one of Leonardo’s glorious but impractical flying machines.