Ageless Survivor

USC Dornsife’s Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education has collaborated on a project transforming Holocaust survivors into 3-D holograms that can engage in dialogue with future generations.
ByMarc Ballon

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter wants to make sure that testimony from himself and others will help prevent future crimes against humanity by making the world aware of evil and the need to combat it.

That’s why he made himself available for questions, such as do you believe in God? How did you survive? Did you ever want revenge?

Like so many who lived through the Holocaust, Gutter’s story is equal parts tragedy and triumph about the strength and endurance of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

Gutter, now 81, recalled the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the day the Nazis tore him away from his 10-year-old twin sister and parents upon their arrival at a concentration camp, never to see them again. Looking resplendent in a white dress shirt, brown vest and slacks, Gutter spoke calmly but with authority in heavily accented English.

But Gutter wasn’t actually there. Instead, his hologram-like image was projected onto a screen. The virtual Gutter, a technological marvel of imagination and engineering, can make eye contact and respond to questions with thoughtful answers, giving him an almost human presence.

That’s the whole point of the initiative, New Dimensions in Testimony.

Housed in USC Dornsife, the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, along with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and design firm Conscience Display, have collaborated on this ambitious new project. The goal: transform Holocaust survivors like Gutter into 3-D holograms that can engage in dialogue with future generations long after the survivors pass on.

To reach the widest possible audience, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, among others, will likely feature interactive exhibitions of holographic Holocaust survivors, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.

Such groundbreaking technology is an especially effective communication tool with today’s tech-savvy youth, a most important audience, Smith said.

“There’s an expectation for a greater depth of intimacy and a more immersive experience,” Smith said. “We’re living with a generation now whose expectation of high-speed delivery, virtual reality and intimate engagement with digital culture is only going to increase.”

Seated, the virtual Gutter waited for a query from the audience.

David Traum, who leads the Natural Language Dialogue group at ICT, asked Gutter how he survived.

“It wasn’t just one thing. It was help from people. It was luck. It was chance. It was faith. It was a combination of 1,000 things,” Gutter said.

“Do you believe in God?” asked Traum, who also serves as a research assistant professor of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Gutter paused. He tapped his feet.

“I believe in God, yes. I believe there is a power higher than human beings, and I’m not quite sure what it is,” Gutter said. “And, of course, in the Jewish religion, in our theology, we are allowed to question… You’re allowed to actually stand up and question. ‘Why, what and when?’ ”

And why does Gutter tell his story?

“I tell my story for the purpose of improving humanity, if that’s possible,” he said.

The possibility has been strengthened with New Dimensions. At present, collaborators have produced the first of what they hope will be several 3-D holograms of Holocaust survivors. Together, they hope to raise $6 million to $10 million from private donors and foundations so this worthy project can reach fruition.

At a time when worldwide anti-Semitism is on the rise, the New Dimensions in Testimony project is of considerable value, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

“The majority of people want to hear a story from somebody who moves, somebody who has emotions,” he said. “Since we don’t know the secret of life and death, there will be no survivors left of this planet in 10, 15 or 20 years. This make the Holocaust real.”

Creating an interactive, digitized Holocaust survivor requires time, precision and teamwork.

As a first step, researchers ask Holocaust survivors at least 400 questions over the course of several days and record their answers. In beta testing, audience members’ most commonly asked queries included questions about survivors’ early lives, life during the Nazi period, religiosity, resistance and life after the war.

Thanks to natural language technologies, the hologram-like figures possess speech recognition capabilities similar to Apple’s Siri. When somebody asks a question, a computer turns sound waves into text. Algorithms created by USC Viterbi Research Assistant Professor Anton Leuski, a member of Traum’s ICT team, automatically identify key words and phrases and match them instantaneously with appropriate answers in the database. The process, Traum said, leverages the same techniques as cross-language information retrieval.

And what happens if somebody asks a question that cannot be answered, such as who will win the 2015 NBA Championship or become the next president of the United States?

Gutter’s hologram responds: “I’m afraid I cannot answer that question.”

To create a realistic hologram-like image, Gutter gave his interview in ICT’s Light Stage, where he was recorded with seven high-definition cameras on a 26-foot spherical stage with more than 6,000 LED lights capturing his three-dimensional interaction with unprecedented detail. The next recording process featured up to 50 cameras and was even better at recording the survivor testimony in three dimensions, said Paul Debevec, associate director of graphics at ICT, USC Viterbi research professor of computer science and chief developer of the Light Stage technology.

So good are Debevec’s Light Stage technologies that they have been used to create digital faces and bodies in Hollywood blockbusters, including The Avengers, Avatar and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The USC team’s 3-D hologram differs considerably from the imagery of Tupac Shakur that made an acclaimed appearance at 2012’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival, Debevec said. Virtual Tupac was two-dimensional video reflected by a thin plastic screen toward the distant audience, offering only a flat, frontal view. By contrast, the holograms under development will appear in 3-D from every angle, creating a believable experience in the most intimate of settings — a classroom or small auditorium.

“We want the virtual survivor to have depth, to have presence,” Debevec said, “to seem like they are sitting in the same room as the audience.”