Stephen D Smith

Oral history turns holographic

Pinchas Gutter sits in a red chair surrounded by bright green fabric under the glare of several thousand LED lights, 53 cameras capturing his every move. This is the world’s first ever full-life history captured in true 3-D. As I interview him, I perch on a stool 8 feet away at 90 degrees to Pinchas. We can see each other through a mirror angled at 45 degrees. I have 400 questions in front of me as we settle in for five days of intensive interview. This is not the fireside chat in the comfort of the interviewee’s home. We are joined in the studio by a host of graphic and natural language scientists, multiple interviewers and producers frantically scribbling notes.

Oral history just changed irreversibly.

My own journey into conversational question-and-answer testimony began with a discussion in London with thought leader Trevor Pears, who had long since wanted to see the answers survivors had given to the many questions young people have, captured for the benefit of future generations. We agreed it should be done, but how?

New Dimensions in Testimony, the first truly interactive question-and-answer program, is the brainchild of concept designer Heather Maio. Frustrated by the lack of human dialogue with digital content in an interactive age, and concerned that conversations between survivors and young people would be forever lost, she set out to beat the clock.

Her criteria were demanding: content must be natural language video conversations rendered in true holographic display, without the 3-D glasses. Three years ago that goal seemed unlikely in the tight timeframe left to film aging survivors of the Holocaust. In an act of determination to ensure survivors were preserved in the media of the future, Maio brought together the USC Shoah Foundation, the largest archive of testimony in the world, with USC institute for Creative Technology, the only lab in the world that could capture true 3-D imaging with the language-processing skills to build a voice-recognition system to make conversation-based testimony. She assembled a team of advisors including major museums and scholars, and three years later, 83-year-old Pinchas answered over 400 questions during a full week of demanding interviews.

What makes this so different is the nonlinear nature of the content. We have grown used to hearing life histories as a flow of consciousness in which the interviewee is in control of the narrative and the interviewer guides the interviewee through the stages of his or her story. With the Maio methodology, the interviewee is subject to a series of questions gleaned from students, teachers and public who have universal questions that could apply to any witness, or specific questions about the witness’s personal history. They are asked in sets around subject matter, each a slightly different spin on a related topic.

In order to get to those specific questions, the interviewee does provide a life history (in this case to the USC Shoah Foundation). They also provide a five minute, 15-minute and 40-minute summary for use with different future audiences. Then a long series of stand-alone questions are asked, such as, “Did you ever find your sister?” “Do feel hatred or the need for revenge?” Do you believe in a God?” “How do you feel when you see genocide happening to others?”

Pinchas is placid, adaptable, and takes direction well. That is just as well, because he also has to provide comments like, “I am sorry, can you repeat that?” “Let’s stick to the topic, shall we?” And, “I am really pleased to have shared my thoughts with you.” When the New Dimensions project is complete, you will be able to go to a museum, such as the Illinois Holocaust Museum, listen to Pinchas give his 15-minute story, then ask questions that comes to mind, and Pinchas will be able to answer your questions about the Holocaust and his life before and after, as well as what he thinks about issues in the world today.

Does that sound surreal? Until this week, it was just that.

It just became entirely real.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.
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