Logo: University of Southern California

Never Again

A joint project by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and the USC Shoah Foundation leverages advanced technology to continue the conversation about the Holocaust.
By: Marc Ballon
August 03, 2013 —

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter's holograph answers students' questions
Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter wants to make sure the world never forgets, that his and others’ testimony will help prevent future crimes against humanity by making the world aware of evil and the need to combat it.

That’s why he readily makes himself available for questions, always ready to testify. They ask: 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, of the strength and endurance of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

Gutter, now 81, remembers 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 the Majdanck concentration camp. He never saw them again. He remembers exhausting Nazi death marches and his glorious liberation in 1945.

Looking resplendent in a white dress shirt, brown vest and slacks, Gutter speaks calmly but with authority in heavily accented English. Seated, he waits for a query.

Note: This is a concept video only

David Traum, who leads the Natural Language Dialogue group at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, asks him 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 one thousand things,” Gutter said.

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

Gutter pauses. He taps 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.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Gutter’s testimony is that he 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.

Pinchas Gutter in the ICT Light Stage
That’s the whole point.

USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, Conscience Display and the USC Shoah Foundation have collaborated on a new initiative called New Dimensions in Testimony. The ambitious project’s goal: transform Holocaust survivors like Gutter into 3-D holograms that can engage in dialogue with future generations long after the survivors pass on.

At present, the 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 important project can reach fruition.

At a time when worldwide anti-Semitism is on the rise, the New Dimensions 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 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. He was recorded with seven high-speed, high-definition cameras in the 26-foot spherical stage with more than 6,000 LED lights, acquiring his three-dimensional interaction with unprecedented detail. The next recording process will feature up to 50 cameras and be even better at recording the survivor testimony three-dimensionally, said Paul Debevec, the associate director of graphics at ICT, a Viterbi School research professor of computer science, and the 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 several Hollywood blockbusters, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Avatar, and The Avengers. In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Debevec and three colleagues a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award.

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 adds. 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 even the most intimate of settings like a classroom or small auditorium.

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

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, the Shoah Foundation’s executive director.

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

“There’s an expectation for a greater depth of intimacy and a more immersive experience,” he 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 go up.”