Holograms of Holocaust survivors let crucial stories live on

History preserved: As the aging Holocaust survivor population dwindles, USC scientists scurry to create life-size 3D holograms that can answer viewer questions through Siri-like voice-recognition technology.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
5 min read
A hologram of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter interacts with onlookers during a demonstration of the New Dimensions in Technology project. (Click to enlarge.) USC Institute for Creative Technologies

Pinchas Gutter has told his story many times. Of the horrors of childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto. Of being ripped away from his parents and 10-year-old twin sister the day the family arrived at the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, never to see them again. Of barely surviving a brutal Nazi prisoner "death march" away from front lines and allied forces. Of his liberation in 1945.

The story never loses its power, its agony, or its moments of hope. Only this time it's not the 80-year-old Gutter who's telling his tale, but a Princess Leia-like full-body hologram of him. Gutter's digital representation is a product of New Dimensions in Testimony, a high-tech initiative to record survivors' first-person accounts for interactive 3D exhibits that live on long after the storytellers have passed.

"The effect that it gives is a lot more that that person is there in the room with you than that person was filmed some time ago somewhere else," says Paul Debevec, a professor of computer science at USC and associate director of graphics research at the school's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). "I think it's going to be considerably more engaging and immersive and moving than if they're just up there on a video screen."

USC is teaming with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, and design firm Conscience Display, to develop installations that let students and others converse with the hyper-photorealistic life-size digital versions of the survivors. Viewers ask questions, and the holograms respond, thanks to Siri-style natural-language technology, also developed at USC, that allows observers to ask questions that trigger relevant, spoken answers.

Pinchas Gutter answers questions about his life on an ICT light stage surrounded by high-speed cameras and multiple LED lights positioned just so. (Click to enlarge.) Paul Debevec/USC Institute for Creative Technologies

The project relies on light-stage technology developed by ICT to record interviews using multiple cameras for high-fidelity playback. ICT has been creating digital versions of people with its Light Stage systems since the year 2000, but researchers are significantly enhancing the technology for the survivor project.

"Everything that we're doing is getting retooled and to some extent reinvented specifically for recording the testimony of a survivor," Debevec says, "to do it in a way that when we project it holographically, it's a very absolute literal playback of exactly the way they said it, exactly the way they looked when they were doing it."

Most notably, the USC team is building a Light Stage system that can for the first time holographically record a full body, and do so with more spatial and angular fidelity than the smaller facial-recording system the team has built and used for the project so far.

"It's the kind of project that really inspires you to push everything that much further, because it's such valuable content that we'll be recording," says Debevec, whose institute has contributed to such films as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Avatar."

Stephen Smith
Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, stands next to a light stage used to capture Pinchas Gutter's interview in 3D. (Click to enlarge.) Michele Zousmer

Recently, in an auditorium at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, the project's team demonstrated their efforts with sometimes wrenching footage of Gutter in 2D, and at a scaled-down size in holographic 3D. Once ICT's technology is ready, the survivors' interactive digital doppelgangers will appear full size in 3D.

Debevec acknowledges that even the most advanced technology can't replicate the experience of hearing a survivor's account in person. But as this aging population dwindles, so do opportunities for in-person testimonials in schools, museums, and the like. New Dimensions in Testimony aims to record survivor stories in a way that future generations can best relate to.

Gutter -- who was born in Lodz, Poland, and now lives in Toronto -- was just 7 when the war erupted. The project team filmed him in 3D as he told his story in front of a green screen on Light Stage 6, a dome lit by more than 6,000 LEDs that measures 26 feet in diameter and looks like something the minds at NASA might think up. Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, asked Gutter hundreds of questions and will likely interview the additional survivors picked to participate in the project.

Those survivors will probably spend even more time on Light Stage 6. Whereas seven high-speed cameras captured about 3 hours of Gutter's testimony, future interviewees will be recorded for up to 12 hours with 50 high-definition cameras.

"Some of them will be zoomed in on their face, some of them will be zoomed in on their hands, and a lot of them will be covering the entire body, seated, head to toe," says Debevec, who imagines the holographic technique eventually being applied to scientists, political leaders, and other public figures of note.

Not like the Tupac hologram
The New Dimensions in Testimony project might evoke memories of rapper Tupac Shakur performing at a music festival from beyond the grave, but there are some key technological differences.

Holographic Tupac appeared courtesy of stacked 2D images projected onto a thin and nearly invisible screen. Holographic Gutter and other survivors will be projected into open space to create an even more heightened sense that they're actually present. Audience members, depending on where they're sitting, will be able to see the virtual survivors from different vantage points, as they would any real person sitting in a chair on-stage.

"If you're sitting [at] the front, you see that person from the front. If you're sitting to the right, you'll see them to the right," Debevec says. "Even as you just shift in your seat and move your head back and forth... the viewpoint will shift then, too, appropriately, and you'll get an effect called motion parallax, which is even a more strong and visceral sense of the three-dimensionality than you get with binocular stereo."

The project comes at a crucial time, as an estimated 6 to 10 percent of Holocaust survivors die annually, according to San Francisco's Tauber Holocaust Library and Education Program, whose data shows that 500,000 Holocaust survivors remain worldwide, with about 120,000 of those residing in the United States. Their average age is estimated to be 79.

"We lose many of our survivors every year," Debevec says. "We definitely feel the sense of urgency and that realistically it's going to be now or never."