[This story from The Guardian highlights one of, if not the, most important applications of presence-evoking technology, the preservation of individual and cultural history. The original version includes an additional image and a 0:51 minute video; also see “Holocaust Survivor Experiences Her Own Rescue in Virtual Reality“ (which includes a video) in TIME. –Matthew]
The virtual Holocaust survivor: How history gained new dimensions
Pinchas Gutter survived a Nazi death camp – and now his story will live on through a hologram that can answer your questions
18 June 2016
Pinchas Gutter goes out of his way to find me biscuits. In a sun-baked living room in his north London home, he opens a packet of Rich Tea, sits down and tells me about the Holocaust.
Gutter was seven years old when the second world war broke out. He lived in the Warsaw ghetto for three and a half years, took part in its uprising, survived six Nazi concentration camps – including the Majdanek extermination camp – and lived through a death march across Germany to Theresienstadt in occupied Czechoslovakia.
“Remembrance is the secret of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile,” he says, quoting the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism.
“For me this whole thing is about not forgetting. Because if you forget, you repeat it over and over again. To me, the great importance of testimony is not to forget what people are capable of.” Sitting opposite him here in Hampstead, meeting his eyes and hearing his voice, the idea of forgetting this extraordinary story seems impossible.
One week later I am staring into Gutter’s eyes again. But these eyes are on a screen in the Alternate Realities strand of Sheffield’s international documentary festival. The version of Gutter projected on the monitor is a prototype for a responsive hologram that will be wheeled into classrooms, lecture halls and museums. The idea is that the audience asks questions and pre-recorded memories from Gutter will respond – much as if you’re talking to the real person. This virtual Gutter meets my gaze and tilts his head when I speak into the microphone.
The project, called New Dimensions in Testimony, was thought up by concept developer Heather Maio, and was made in a collaboration between the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and the Shoah Foundation – an organisation dedicated to making and archiving interviews with survivors and witnesses of genocide.
The prototype involved filming extensive interviews with Gutter using an array of cameras and a specialised light stage. The team at ICT then used natural language processing software to help create an interactive version of the video footage, with vocal cues triggering responses from the pool of recorded speech.
Complex algorithms dictate which responses are played back – faintly reminiscent of virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, except that while those pieces of software are primed to answer your questions about emails or the weather, New Dimensions in Testimony is based on communicating one man’s experience of genocide.
“We wanted the visitor to experience the discussion and what that means to them,” Maio tells me. “Not the technology that goes around it and makes it work. In fact, we didn’t want them to think there was technology around them at all.” Read more on Preserving experience: The virtual Holocaust survivor…