York-based consultancy Bright White is designing a series of interactive Holocaust testimonials for the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire.
The £1.25m project, Interact, allows museum visitors to pose unique questions to 3D renderings of real Holocaust survivors projected onto a stage. Using a database of 1,200 pre-recorded answers, a 4K digital projection of each survivor responds to general and personal questions as though the survivor were actually in the room.
Bright White’s managing director Chris Walker says the project is an attempt to preserve the museum’s existing programme of question and answer panels with Holocaust survivors.
Keeping witness testimony alive
“The survivors are 80, 85, 90 years old and soon there will be a day when it’s impossible to keep the programme going,” says Walker. “It’s very important in terms of learning from history that we try our best to make sure that people in the future have the ability to ask questions of witnesses to these kinds of world events.
“In this case it’s Holocaust survivors, but this process could be repeated for Nobel Peace Prize winners or presidents of the US—anybody who has witnessed a world event and has something to tell.”
Responding to visitor questions
When a visitor asks a question, the software matches it with the closest answer to play back the relevant audio. Questions are matched using keywords and categorised by level of confidence.
If the software is positive of the answer to the question, the rendering will respond immediately. If the software detects a close answer, the survivor will say: “I believe I understand your question” and answer with the closest possible response. If there is no answer to the question, the rendering will prompt the viewer to ask the question again, in a different manner.
The projections will be shown in the Pears Auditorium, formerly known as the Memorial Hall, where panels with Holocaust survivors have been held previously. The museum expects nearly 100 people to be able to view the projections at any one time in the room’s theatre-style seating.
Creating “interactive testimony”
Using a panel that included religious experts, schoolchildren and others, Bright White and the university’s experts methodically selected 1,200 questions based on each survivor’s life timeline.
After generating questions, the consultancy interviewed each survivor over the course of one week and recorded their answers using high-definition 3D video recorders.
“This isn’t about creating videos of Holocaust testimonies,” says Walker. “That has been done before. This is about creating interactive testimony—the difference being that depending on your background and your experience, you will pick up on something different from the person sitting next to you in the audience.
“Everybody has a different experience in life and therefore the stories survivors tell chimes in different ways with different people.”
Interact received funding from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, jointly funded by the innovation charity NESTA, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. There has also been financial support from the National Lottery via Arts Council England.
Professor Minhua Ma, associate dean and professor of Digital Media and Games at the University of Huddersfield, contributed research and co-authored a paper during the course of the project’s development.
Interact also involves a collaboration with The Shoa Foundation, and the Institute of Creative Technologies, University of Southern California and Conscience Display, Los Angeles.
Bright White interviewed nine survivors already and will interview the 10th survivor next month. Private display testing will also begin next month, after the three-year production process. The museum has not yet set a release date for public viewing.
All images courtesy of Bright White.