Three dimensional testimony
Museums are more engaging if the exhibits are interactive. Researchers in California have used 3D technology and AI to create truly interactive rendering of holocaust survivor testimonies.
Back in the 1990s when "multimedia" was a buzzword and the web was still generally unknown, Microsoft released Encarta, an encyclopaedia on CD. One of the most interesting aspects of this was the way it went beyond the traditional book format by being able to include sound clips of musical instruments, examples of pronunciations of words, and short videos for some entries such as this engaging example. For many people, this was the first time they saw a computer displaying video and being a true information resource.
This sort of use of technology has become commonplace in the modern museum. People expect to see video screens to help them understand and explore the exhibits, but researchers at the University of Southern Californias Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and the Shoah Foundation, an organisation dedicated to making and archiving interviews with survivors and witnesses of genocide, wanted to see if they could take this further and use technology which would make a truly interactive exhibition and have much more impact on the visitors.
To this end, they interviewed Pinchas Gutter, a holocaust survivor who now lives in Toronto. The interviews were filmed from a number of angles and recorded to create 25 hours worth of footage which was analysed by complex algorithms and broken down into digital fragments.
Rather than create a simple fixed duration video, the data was used to create a display in which a seemingly three dimensional life sized image sits at one end of a table, around which visitors can sit. Voice recognition technology, similar to that which is used in Siri or Cortana, allows the visitors to ask questions of the virtual Gutter. The system searches the 25 hours worth of data to find the appropriate response and delivers that response in Gutter's voice, using Gutter's expressions and mannerisms, even the way he tilts his head towards the person when being asked a question.
People who have seen it say it feels uncannily like they are talking to a real person, that they are engaging in a conversation with a real person, so much so that one woman apologised to the projection for the negligence of the world during the holocaust. When the exhibit was displayed this month at Sheffield's DocFest 2016, it generated a huge amount of visitor interest.
As this concept develops, sociologists and historians will no doubt find it useful as a way of recording today's history and bringing topics alive to new audiences. Imagine, for instance, that you could have a virtual rendering of the Prime Minister sitting in your living room right now, asking them your own questions about the state of the nation.
However, powerful as this technique is, it is not without its pitfalls. In the case of the holocaust testimony prototype, the creators have taken great care to ensure that the software only gives answers which are consistent with those given by Gutter himself, and with the same tone of presentation, but people with an agenda could use this technique to manipulate the message and literally put words into the mouths of others.
Did you know...
SKILLZONE designed, built and manage the website for the Open University History Society which has members in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the USA. It regularly organises history-themed events in the UK, such as an upcoming walking tour of Stratford upon Avon.
29th June 2016
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