There are an estimated 500,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, but with an average age of 79, they comprise an ever-dwindling part of the world's population. Their stories, however, will almost certainly live on, thanks in part to innovative efforts like New Dimensions in Testimony — an initiative that aims to record and preserve their harrowing histories through 3D holographic avatars.
Launched by USC's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, the project effectively converts existing survivors into full-body, interactive holograms. Using seven high speed cameras, researchers recorded hours worth of testimony from people like 80-year-old Pinchas Gutter, who spent his early childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. Gutter was interviewed and recorded in 3D against a green screen inside Light Stage 6, a 26-foot wide dome lit by 6,000 LEDs. This footage was then converted into a lifelike holographic rendering designed to be displayed at museums or other historical exhibitions.
"We definitely feel the sense of urgency."
It's an approach that may seem similar to the Tupac Shakur hologram unveiled at last year's Coachella music festival, but as CNET notes, USC's renderings are far more interactive. Whereas the Tupac hologram was composed from stacked 2D images against a thin screen, Gutter and other survivors will be broadcast in an open space, allowing viewers to see them from multiple vantage points. The holograms also include Siri-like voice recognition capabilities, meaning they can accurately field and respond to questions.
Paul Debevec, a computer science professor and associate director of graphics at ICT, admits that nothing can ever truly replicate the experience of hearing a first-hand account, but he hopes that his holograms will at least provide a more interactive and immersive way for younger generations to engage with their history. And at a time when an estimated six to ten percent of Holocaust survivors are dying every year, the imperative to preserve their history has become even greater.
"We lose many of our survivors every year," Debevec told CNET. "We definitely feel the sense of urgency and that realistically it's going to be now or never."