Zeitzeugin im Volucap ©
Filmuniversität Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, Foto: Jakob Grasböck

Vir­tu­al Rea­li­ty for Histo­ry Education

The VR Pro­ject “For Real? – Vir­tu­al Encoun­ters with His­to­ri­cal Eyewitnesses”

When Holo­caust sur­vi­vors talk about their expe­ri­en­ces, they often do this at events, at the invi­ta­ti­on of schools or in front of TV came­ras. But now that more than 78 years have pas­sed sin­ce the end of the Nazi regime, the­re are fewer and fewer eye­wit­nesses who can tell us about the hor­rors first-hand. It’s not only his­to­ri­ans who are faced with the ques­ti­on of how can we com­mu­ni­ca­te to the youn­ger gene­ra­ti­ons what hap­pen­ed back then and must not be allo­wed to be repea­ted? Immersi­ve media such as Vir­tu­al or Aug­men­ted Rea­li­ty appli­ca­ti­ons offer a chan­ce to approach the cul­tu­re of memo­ry in a new way. A spe­cial pro­ject that can be view­ed from the end of August at various loca­ti­ons throug­hout Bran­den­burg is “For Real? - Vir­tu­al Encoun­ters with His­to­ri­cal Eye­wit­nesses” which has been made pos­si­ble thanks to a coope­ra­ti­on bet­ween the Bran­den­burg Socie­ty for Cul­tu­re and Histo­ry (BGK) and the Film Uni­ver­si­ty Babels­berg KON­RAD WOLF, with fun­ding from the Foun­da­ti­on Remem­brance, Respon­si­bi­li­ty and Future (EVZ).Volu­cap was tas­ked with over­see­ing the tech­ni­cal pro­ces­sing, ren­de­ring and data manage­ment. The volu­metric raw data of the inter­views had alre­a­dy been recor­ded during a pre­vious pro­ject.

„For Real…?“ is a nati­on­wi­de pilot pro­ject that will hop­eful­ly offer points of depar­tu­re on an inter­na­tio­nal level as well sin­ce the pro­blem of nas­cent anti-Semi­tism, racism and xeno­pho­bia is not one spe­ci­fic to Bran­den­burg (or Ger­ma­ny). The abili­ty to hear and see authen­tic his­to­ri­cal eye­wit­nesses recoun­ting their trau­ma­tic expe­ri­en­ces first-hand is a very important way of gai­ning a per­so­nal expe­ri­ence of his­to­ri­cal events. “Howe­ver, it will beco­me even more important for us to pre­ser­ve the “imme­dia­cy” of their sto­ries once the­se wit­nesses are no lon­ger with us,” Dr. Kata­lin Kraszn­ahor­kai, Lead Curator/​Artistic Direc­tor at the Bran­den­burg Socie­ty for Cul­tu­re and Histo­ry, explains.

Volu­metric eye­wit­ness interviews

Holo­caust sur­vi­vors such as Inge Auer­ba­cher, Leon Weint­raub, Ruth Win­kel­mann, Kurt Hill­mann and Char­lot­te Knob­loch, all in their 80s and 90s, tra­vel­led to Babels­berg in 2021 to be inter­view­ed. It was a com­ple­te­ly new expe­ri­ence for them as well: being put in Volucap’s volu­metric stu­dio of a white dome with num­e­rous came­ras. They were inter­view­ed by the docu­men­ta­ry film direc­tor Chris­ti­an Zip­fel who super­vi­sed the pro­ject in an artis­tic and con­cep­tu­al capa­ci­ty on behalf of the Film Uni­ver­si­ty. He had only a limi­t­ed recor­ding time of about one hour to pre­sent the key aspects of their life sto­ries. Unli­ke TV docu­men­ta­ries whe­re the inter­view­ees speak for seve­ral hours and an inter­view is edi­ted from the foo­ta­ge, the tes­ti­mo­nies here had to con­cen­tra­te on the essentials. 

This was due to the enorm­ous amount of data that the volu­metric recor­dings requi­re. In an inter­view, Sven Blie­dung von der Hei­de, CEO of Volu­cap, explains that “the reso­lu­ti­on of our stu­dio is a world lea­der, we can cap­tu­re with 3,000 mega­pi­xels. That’s an immense amount of data. Sto­ring and pro­ces­sing about five minu­tes of mate­ri­al is com­pa­ra­ble to the amount of data for all the books exis­ting in the world. This data does­n’t just want to be stored, it also wants to be pro­ces­sed.” This was also a chall­enge for the Volu­cap team who have used their volu­metric cap­tu­re equip­ment pre­do­mi­nant­ly to pro­vi­de sequen­ces las­ting a few minu­tes for films, video clips or games. 

New approach to cul­tures of memory

The aes­the­tic adopted for the nar­ra­ti­ve here is also a dif­fe­rent one. The white space of the stu­dio was retai­ned in the later VR appli­ca­ti­on. “It was important for us that the recor­ding situa­ti­on remains trans­pa­rent from a docu­men­ta­ry per­spec­ti­ve,” says Pro­fes­sor Björn Stock­le­ben who was the pro­ject mana­ger for “For Real?” on behalf of the Film Uni­ver­si­ty. “The pre­vious pro­ject had seen us working with ela­bo­ra­te digi­tal recon­s­truc­tions of loca­ti­ons in The­re­si­en­stadt to pro­vi­de a visu­al con­text for the tes­tim­o­ny from the con­tem­po­ra­ry wit­ness Mar­got Fried­län­der. We are focu­sing here on the imme­dia­te pre­sence of the per­son who is spea­king and thus only con­cen­t­ra­ting on the volu­metric captures.” 

The Film Uni­ver­si­ty team also deve­lo­ped the cor­re­spon­ding VR appli­ca­ti­on. In order to do jus­ti­ce to the con­tent of the inter­views and, at the same time, be able to make important excerp­ts available, they orga­nis­ed a work­shop whe­re 9th gra­de pupils from Potsdam’s Vol­taire­schu­le rated the inter­view tran­scripts and sel­ec­ted the sec­tions that they con­side­red to be the most emo­tio­nal, exci­ting and important. Young peo­p­le are one of the most important tar­get groups for the pro­ject. “It was fasci­na­ting to see how media sav­vy the pupils were and how they gave thought to ways of deal­ing with the tech­ni­cal pos­si­bi­li­ties and the subject’s com­ple­xi­ty,” Dr Kata­lin Kraszn­ahor­kai notes. 

They are used to a dif­fe­rent kind of media con­sump­ti­on thanks to video games and the omni­pre­sence of smart­phones. “We know the wit­nesses from pre­vious appearan­ces on two-dimen­sio­nal tele­vi­si­on. A repre­sen­ta­ti­on that seems old-fashio­ned in this day and age. The­re is much more inter­ac­tion pos­si­ble with VR glas­ses. You then have the fee­ling that the per­son is stan­ding in front of you,” Blie­dung von der Hei­de from Volu­cap adds. Howe­ver, it was important for all invol­ved that the tech­no­lo­gy did not dis­tract from the Holo­caust sur­vi­vors’ tes­ti­mo­nies. “Com­mu­ni­ca­ting the sub­ject mat­ter is the most important thing - rather than wan­ting to have as immersi­ve a media expe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble,” direc­tor Chris­ti­an Zip­fel confirms. 

The exhi­bi­ti­on „For Real?“

The inter­views will be shown in the exhi­bi­ti­on “In Real?” from the end of August at various loca­ti­ons in Bran­den­burg - from Pots­dam through Wittstock/​Dosse, Kyritz, Pritz­walk, and Jüter­bog to Cott­bus and Fins­ter­wal­de. The Bran­den­burg Socie­ty for Cul­tu­re has work­ed tog­e­ther with an agen­cy to crea­te an accom­pany­ing exhi­bi­ti­on offe­ring a lot of addi­tio­nal infor­ma­ti­on. It is par­ti­cu­lar­ly important for them to make this for­mat and vir­tu­al encoun­ters with his­to­ri­cal eye­wit­nesses of the Nazi ter­ror acces­si­ble for regio­nal and rural loca­ti­ons out­side of the big cities as this is urgen­tly nee­ded there. 

In the exhi­bi­ti­on, the visi­tors use VR glas­ses to enter the digi­tal space whe­re ten ques­ti­ons will be floa­ting in front of them. They can then fol­low topics in chro­no­lo­gi­cal order begin­ning with the Novem­ber pogroms and con­ti­nuing through to con­tem­po­ra­ry right-wing ten­den­ci­es, inclu­ding the AFD. Indi­vi­du­al ques­ti­ons can be sel­ec­ted by eye-track­ing con­trol. In a next step, the inter­face dis­ap­pears and one is con­fron­ted by a life­li­ke scan of one of the five Holo­caust wit­nesses who gives a pre-recor­ded sub­jec­ti­ve ans­wer. In the appli­ca­ti­on, the exhi­bi­ti­on visi­tor meets the wit­nesses on seve­ral occa­si­ons in respon­se to dif­fe­rent ques­ti­ons - this is also important as a way of estab­li­shing a cer­tain bond with the prot­ago­nists and thus not con­sum­ing an unma­na­geable num­ber of inter­view parts, accor­ding to direc­tor Zipfel. 

An exten­si­ve archi­ve of his­to­ri­cal eye­wit­ness accounts has thus been crea­ted along­side the cur­rent exhi­bi­ti­on which will be laun­ched on 29 August in the House of Bran­den­burg-Prus­si­an Histo­ry in Pots­dam. “How will school­child­ren, stu­dents, mul­ti­pli­ers or just pas­sing visi­tors react to this oppor­tu­ni­ty to enga­ge with his­to­ri­cal wit­nesses and their sto­ries by using VR glas­ses?” is one of the ques­ti­ons we will be posing as we accom­pa­ny the pro­ject over the coming months, Dr Kata­lin Kraszn­ahor­kai says. The Film Uni­ver­si­ty will be over­see­ing the project’s sci­en­ti­fic eva­lua­ti­on on behalf of the BGK and exami­ning how the cul­tu­re of memo­ry is chan­ging in the way it is com­mu­ni­ca­ted and how the expe­ri­en­ces of con­tem­po­ra­ry wit­nesses can be kept ali­ve for later generations. 

Image Cre­dit: Eye­wit­ness in Volu­cap © Film Uni­ver­si­ty Babels­berg KON­RAD WOLF, Pho­to­graph: Jakob Grasböck

About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.