John Marr — these days, he prefers the name "Jonmar," in part to avoid confusion with the guitarist for the British rock band The Smiths — is launching what he calls the world's first augmented reality art store from an office on the west side of Corvallis.
This past Friday at the Majestic Theater, he and his colleagues in his company, Varlio, showed off the technology (and Jonmar's artwork) in a presentation for the public.
Here's an oversimplified version of how it works: Users download an app for their phones or tablet computers. (The app now is live in Apple's App Store.) When a user focuses on a painting or poster that's equipped for augmented reality (the app uses image recognition), a "Play" button appears; hit the button, and the device plays a video or displays other media to augment the image hanging on the wall.
So in the augmented reality version of a poster for the musical group We Three, the poster appears to come to life on the user's smartphone or tablet. Members of the group speak, and they appear to be in a virtual room that users can explore using their smartphone or tablet. The virtual room offers more information about the McMinville group, a semifinalist in season 13 of "America's Got Talent" — the band's touring schedule, for example, appears to be printed on one of the walls in the virtual room.
The augmented versions of paintings by Jonmar, hanging throughout the company's office, come to life with the story behind each image: The video for a Jonmar painting called "Prodigal," shows him working, at high speed, on the painting; as the different layers of the story unfold, layers of paint come and go. In addition to creating the painting, Jonmar wrote the story, shot the video, composed the music for it and provides the narration.
In other paintings, such as one showing the Rev. Martin Luther King, the app allows entry into a virtual world where watchers can wander about to learn more about King's life and times. In other works, figures appear to pop out of the painting; in one case, the subject of a portrait emerges from the painting and begins to narrate details about the work. Think of how the paintings in the "Harry Potter" movies came to life, and you have an idea of how it works.
For Jonmar, the 48-year-old CEO of Varlio, the company is a logical extension of a lifelong interest in both technology and art. But it took a family tragedy to convince him to finally take the plunge.
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Jonmar, who lives in Philomath, was working for Nike as the company's lead iOS innovation developer and designer, building mobile applications for various departments at the company's Beaverton headquarters. Then, his fifth child, Cade, was born with a fatal genetic ailment. The boy lived 36 hours, Jonmar said.
"His life kind of broke open the floodgates of my creativity," Jonmar said. He left his job at Nike in September 2018 and focused on ways to combine his longtime love of art with an augmented reality platform.
A test run at a gallery in California went well, Jonmar said — and dozens of artists have expressed interest in learning more about the technology and how they might be able to use it in their work. But he acknowledged that the technology might not be for every artist: One of the keys to Varlio is its emphasis on having artwork tell a story, and not every artist is interested in doing that.
"Our goal is to have beautiful storytelling experiences," he said. "What I feel separates us from other people is our storytelling. We want to be the Pixar of augmented art."
Jonmar is having a great time, and Varlio appeals both to the kid who sketched out a drawing of Albert Einstein when he was 6 and the kid who got his first computer when he was 10 or 11.
"The little kid in me is getting out and having the time of his life," he said ... "My art world, for the first time in my life, kind of fell in love with the tech world."