Interactive Holocaust project opens Thursday

Photos courtesy of Josh Grossberg/USC Shoah Foundation.

The USC Shoah Foundation and USC Institute for Creative Technologies will open the first permanent installation of their interactive Holocaust project on Thursday after over five years of work.

The installation, New Dimensions in Testimony, features extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors through interactive technology that allows the public to have conversations with the individuals.

The Holocaust survivors were selected from a variety of backgrounds that included a large range in ages, experiences and locations during the war. One of the 15 participants in the project was Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, whose interactive work is currently being displayed in New York at a temporary installation.

The goal of the project was to recreate the intimacy of learning from Holocaust survivors, which the team working on the project attempted to do by allowing the public to ask the interactive displays any question they wished.

“[We wanted] really to preserve as much as possible the experience you can have today talking to a Holocaust survivor in a classroom or a museum,” said David Traum, director for natural language research at the Institute for Creative Technologies. “You hear their testimony [and] ask them questions, getting a sense of immersion, of being in the same environment.”

Responses to the demos were unlike anything that had been expected, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation. Many used the opportunity to ask more difficult questions than they would normally ask survivors.

“We didn’t realize how powerful it would be because when you ask a question and the individual answers your specific questions while looking you in the eye, it’s a very engaging experience,” Smith said. “I think people have been more emotionally affected than we realize by what happened. That’s what we were aiming to do, to create that connection, but it’s been at a higher level than we expected.”

The emotional connection is attributed to more than the stories of the survivors.

“A lot of it is the material and definitely the personality of the survivors coming through, but I think this interactive presentation is really an element of that too,” Traum said. “I don’t think we would have the same kind of responses if they were just seeing the videos passively and not asking questions or in the room hearing the questions answered.”

The Shoah Foundation conducted extensive interviews with each Holocaust survivor who participated in the project, asking around 1,500 questions to each of them to cover every topic they expected the public to ask about, Smith said.

Before starting the official interviews  for the installation, the team working on the project had to develop trust with each of the interviewees through a three-month process. They conducted extensive research on the individuals and got to know them and their families.

“By the time we’re interviewing them, we’re not strangers,” Smith said. “We know them very well and by the time we’re finished they’re kind of like intimate friends because we’ve been through a lot together.”

According to Smith, many of the participating Holocaust survivors were surprised about how grueling the process was. Some were familiar with speaking and answering questions at schools, but the process for the installation required more hours of interviewing than they were accustomed to.

“These are tough old people,” Smith said. “They’ve been through the worst human experiences, so they feel like [they] can get through everything, [but] when they’re feeling their age and the lights and the tiredness that goes with answering hundreds of questions, I think they found that a little surprising.”

Family members were invited to attend the final Los Angeles interview to support the participants throughout the process.

During the initial stages of the project, the team overcame several obstacles to make the Holocaust survivors appear realistic.

“The first challenge is to figure out what is it we need to record so that it can carry on a conversation,” Traum said. “You can ask me anything and I have a response for you. It may not be exactly the answer you’re hoping to hear, but there’s a way for me to respond someway even if I say, ‘I don’t want to answer that.’ But, when we record somebody, we’re only going to have the material we recorded and that has to be good for any kind of answer, including something completely different than somebody thought of years before.”

A prototype was created with Pinchus Gutter, a Holocaust survivor who Smith had previously worked with  and knew well. He answered about 200 questions in an interview, which were then analyzed with respect to his answers and the conditions it was done in, Smith said. The prototype was also set up for the public to use so that those working on the project could observe reactions to the interactive and decide what needed to be developed. This produced a few surprising results.

“We hadn’t had to think about how [he responds] if he’s given an opinion or some solace or thanked for his service,” Smith said. “[Gutter’s interactive] would just look at them because that’s not a question.”

Traum said the team had originally hoped to make the Holocaust survivors three-dimensional for a more intimate experience, but did not have the technology to do so. The current installations are displayed two-dimensionally; however, the project was done with considerations for future technology.

“We wanted it to be able to create high-fidelity 3-D holographic type images even if the projectors didn’t exist in 2011 when we started,” Smith said. “We wanted to film in such a way that 10 years from now, 20 years from now, when the projection system exists, we can project it.”