Israeli Firm Artbit Develops App That Identifies, Provides Details About Art

Users take a picture of artwork on their smartphones and app will provide the information, similar to what Shazam does in identifying works of recorded music.

Tomer Appelbaum

The founders of Israeli company Artbit, which has developed a new digital application designed to identify art, are thinking big. They have operations in Tel Aviv and will soon expand to New York. “We want to do for the art world what Steve Jobs did for the music world,” said Artbit CEO Ofer Atir, referring to the late high-tech executive and cofounder of Apple Computer. Artbit’s app is designed to identify works of art in its database. Users will simply take a picture of the artwork on their smartphones and the app will provide the information, similar to what the Shazam app does in identifying works of recorded music.

The app will supply a variety of details on the art, based on what information the user requests, from the name of the artist and the year in which the work was created to academic articles about the work, critics’ analysis of it, links to the artist’s other work and exhibitions of similar art. The app can also provide information about art events taking place in the vicinity of the individual user, including directions on how to get there. Registering for the app is via Facebook, which provides Artbit information about users and allows the company to try to provide content adapted to individual users. 

“Our goal is not to replace the physical experience but rather to add to it and intensify it,” Atir says. “I believe people want to be consumers of art, but that it seems like a scary, inaccessible world to them. We want to take the reasonable person and tell him that art is an amazing thing. We also want to connect those who haven’t got a clue about art but who up to now haven’t felt comfortable asking so they don’t appear ignorant. Instead of asking who painted something, he takes a photograph of it and the app provides a layered reality for it,” he explains. “The database of art is due to fill out with the help of users who take photos and ask for explanations about it, which the company’s staff will locate and provide.”

Atir, 50, has worked in high tech for many years, including stints at a number of startups where he was development director. His exposure to the art world began with art study at the Midrasha art school at Beit Berl in the Sharon area northeast of Tel Aviv. He was amazed by what the world of art had to offer but also felt that technology could lend a lot to addressing problems in the field. 

His team at Artbit includes creative and product director Zachi Diner, 45, a designer and founder of design and planning firms who is also a lecturer at interactive design program at the Holon Institute of Technology south of Tel Aviv; Stav Avrahami, 32, Artbit’s VP for marketing; and Gidi Smilansky, 38, an artist and one of the founders of Tel Aviv’s Alfred cooperative gallery. Artbit was founded in 2011 by tech entrepreneurs Aric and Yoram Ben-Zvi, who have been working to develop picture identification technology and its uses. About a year and a half ago, they decided to focus on the art world. They recruited the company’s current staff, which developed the app.

The application is designed not only to support identification of paintings and other two-dimensional works, but sculpture, art installations and video art as well. Not all of it is already up and running. When put to the test recently on video art at the Braverman gallery in Tel Aviv, it was unsuccessful, but for his part, Atir responded: “We have a lot of technology and patents and optimization for the art world. For example, there is not always Wi-Fi in museums and flash photography can’t be used there, and the application is able to also identify works of art under difficult conditions. We will even be able to present a sculpture in 360 degrees.”

Smilanksy provides the assurance that the company has no intention of putting art into a digital catalog that will confine users to their homes. “We believe in the sacred experience of standing in front of a work of art and experiencing it in and of itself. It’s actually calling for people to get out and experience art and enjoy it.”

Another goal of the app is to forge direct links between artists and their public. “One of the things that is lacking today for artists is seeing who is interested in their work, and the application makes that possible,” Diner says. “We bring to the table the real [process] of addressing what’s involved in getting into the online world. It’s a system that is shaking up the art world and presenting things that it doesn’t really know how to deal with. Ultimately the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. Initiatives that have disrupted the old world, like Uber,” a reference to the digitally-based transportation service, “have brought about a major blossoming of the markets in which they have operated.”