IBM Watson’s New Job as Art Museum Guide Could Hint at Lots of Future Roles With Brands

Go ahead, ask him anything

Headshot of Angela Natividad

Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of Brazilians have never been inside a museum, according to a 2010 study from the Brazilian Institute of Economic Research. There are probably many reasons for this, but among them is the feeling that art can seem inaccessible unless you’ve studied it.

So, how do you get art to speak to you specifically? By getting it to speak, period.

For the launch of IBM Watson in Brazil, Ogilvy Brazil created an interactive guide that lets people have conversations with work housed at the Pinacoteca de SĂŁo Paulo Museum. “The Voice of Art” replaces pre-recorded audio guides with a Watson-powered program that gleans data from books, old newspapers, recent articles, biographies, interviews and the internet.

It took IBM six months to teach Watson how to make sense of all that content. Hosted on cloud platform IBM Bluemix, its AI capabilities were put to work answering spontaneous questions about art by renowned Brazilian creators like Cândido Portinari, Tarsila do Amaral and José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior.

Conversational scope can range from historical and technical facts (like “What technique was used to create this painting?”) to the piece’s relation to contemporary events.

The video below does a nice job of showing how Watson fields natural questions whose answers feel especially relevant to the person asking, creating a unique connection between viewer and piece. In one cool moment, a boy approaches Portinari’s O Mestiço, a 1934 painting of a shirtless mixed-race man against the backdrop of a coffee farm.

“Do you like to play soccer?” he asks.

The guide replies, “In 1934, soccer was already huge in Brazil. But a field worker like him didn’t have time to play…”

“Brazilians knew very little about Watson’s capabilities and see it as a very distant technology. We wanted to find a use for Watson where any person could interact with it and see it in action,” Ogilvy Brazil’s chief creative officer, Claudio Lima, tells AdFreak.

“When we found this scary piece of data—72 percent of Brazilians had never been to a museum—we saw an opportunity to make use of Watson’s cognitive intelligence with an issue he could help solve—making visits more interactive and easy for most Brazilians, and creating something that can be expanded to other markets, museums and galleries.”

At the Pinacoteca’s entrance, visitors receive headphones and a smartphone equipped with the mobile app. As they walk, the app tells them when they’re approaching an art piece they can ask questions about. A separate feature, for hearing-impaired visitors, lets them interact through a built-in written chat tool.

Still, we did wonder what happens when Watson gets stumped.

“We have had very little problems with speech recognition; Watson is very advanced in that area and has been learning Portuguese for a couple years at least,” Lima says. “When [he doesn’t know an answer], the question is sent to the Watson/Pinacoteca team. They’ll access one of the exhibition curators or a Pinacoteca educator, and provide the tools for him to find the answer … so he learns with everything he doesn’t know.”

“The Voice of Art” debuted at the Pinacoteca on April 5, and will run through June 5. It’s being promoted via PR and online videos; Lima says the campaign has already yielded a 200 percent rise in museum visitors.

It’s also likely Watson’s smarts will fuel other interactions, too. And not just with art.

“We have already had emails showing interest from two other museums in Brazil. IBM was also approached by companies wanting to use the technology, so people can have conversations with specific products through their smartphones,” Lima says.

Client: IBM Brasil
Agency: Ogilvy Brazil
Name: A Voz da Arte
Chief Creative Officer: Cláudio Lima
Executive Creative Director: Felix Del Valle
Creative Director: Guiga Giacomo e Márcio Fritzen
Art Director: Frederico Gasparian
Copywriter: Leandro Neves
Planner: JoĂŁo Marcon e Rafael Liou
Agency Producer: Rafael Rosi, CecĂ­lia Taioli e LaĂ­s Pereira
Account: Bruno Perez, Chad Cathers, Gabriela Castejon e Milena Frias
Client: Fabiana Galetol, Gisele Lloret e Mauro Segura
Production House: Bando Studio
Director: Alexandre Charro e Leandro HBL
Executive Producer: Marcela Sutter
Director Photography: Vagner Jabour
First AD: Daniel Paschowitch
Producer: Delio Santiago
Editor: Lucas Coelho
Post: Bando Studio
Finalizador: Ruda Cordaro
Audio: Banda Sonora
Musical Director: Ruriá Duprat
Audio production: Eduardo Santos

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@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.