Creating a Holocaust conversation for the future

Pinchas Gutter's holographic testimony

Pinchas Gutter, a Toronto Holocaust survivor, sits at the front of the classroom answering students’ questions in an easy give-and-take discussion.

 An unremarkable scene, except that Gutter isn’t really there. The students are conversing with a life-size, three-dimensional hologram. The real Gutter has pre-recorded answers to about 1,000 questions, and sophisticated voice recognition software and camera work give the compelling illusion that he is carrying on an interactive conversation.

It’s a brilliant solution, conceived in the labs of the University of Southern California’s Shoah foundation, to the troubling question of how to preserve and re-create conversations about the Holocaust in the future.

“We want to achieve the sense of intimacy and directness between the students and the survivors, so they’ve had the questions that are pressing on them answered,” explains Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah foundation. “We want to try and meet those young people of the future where they are.”

The bar that the USC researchers set was high. The images had to look three-dimensional, without the aid of special glasses or gimmicks. And the conversation had to feel as natural and logical as possible, Smith told a conference on Holocaust Survivor Testimony in a Digital Age, sponsored by March of the Living Canada in Toronto last week.

The project, called New Dimensions in Testimony, is still in its infancy, but it is already startlingly realistic. Preliminary testing has been projected on a television screen, and at first, viewers think Gutter is speaking to them via Skype. But even when they realize the image isn’t “live,” they still forget. Smith has seen a mother thank the hologram of Pinchas profusely for sharing his story with her two daughters at a Holocaust museum.

He’s also seen a roomful of skeptical academics applaud the hologram of Pinchas, forgetting that he isn’t present.

“It’s not about the 3D technology, it’s about the dialogue,” Smith said.

In fact, based on initial testing, Gutter will return to the USC lab next month to record more answers to questions that had not been predicted, including a response to the people who thank him so emotionally. Responses will also be taped in Hebrew and Polish.

Gutter, 83, who is the first person to test-drive the new technology says it has been a gruelling experience.

On three occasions, he travelled to the Los Angeles foundation, where he sat in a dome lit by 6,000 LED lights, surrounded by 52 cameras. The lights were so blinding he had to wear protective glasses when he wasn’t being filmed. He had to wear the same clothes and sit in the same position to maintain the continuity of the project.

“I spent five days sitting in that sphere. I lost track of how many questions were asked,” he said. “I had no idea of what the questions were because it had to be spontaneous. It was both emotionally and physically draining.”

Drafting the more than 900 questions was also a challenge. Researchers had to start with the lowest level of knowledge about the Holocaust, and one day, staff brought in their own children to ask questions, Gutter said.

 Answers had to be recorded for questions that were off-topic and that were hypothetical. In testing, the software has picked out the best answer for about 90 per cent of the questions that have been asked.

Smith chose his first “guinea pig” to try out the new technology carefully. He needed someone who “was eloquent, who had stamina and who had a good relationship and trust with me. Because it was a research environment there were equipment breakdowns. We didn’t know how well it would go,” he said.

The two men met many years ago, when Smith was designing a Holocaust museum in Cape Town and interviewed Gutter, who was then living in South Africa. Smith has since made a documentary about Gutter’s first return trip to Poland and the two men clearly have a close relationship.

“I agreed to be involved with this because of my friendship with [Smith],” Gutter told the conference. “I felt there was a value in what it was trying to achieve.”

The project will go live next year in the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and eventually will be in other educational centres in North America and Europe. “We don’t want to rush it. The Holocaust survivors are there and doing their thing,” Smith said in an interview.

 The project hopes to record 10 survivors, five women and five women, who will reflect the diversity of the Holocaust experience. It’s an expensive undertaking, costing about $2 million initially and then $500,000 for each additional survivor who will be filmed.

But for Gutter the project “is worth every penny.”

“If this helps advance the knowledge of the Shoah in the future and it doesn’t just become an academic exercise, it is very meaningful.”