ETC start-up creates Holocaust VR experience

The ETC is proud of our faculty and alumni who have made an impact on the Askwith Kenner Global Languages & Cultures Room, a new space within the David A. Tepper Quadrangle.  This new space is a technology focused lab that promotes interactive experiences that relate to different languages and cultures from around the world, and it’s mission is to foster interdisciplinary learning for students, faculty and the CMU community, with a focus on providing a “window to the world”.

One of the inaugural experiences in the Kenner room is titled “Poland – Journeying Through the Camps” and was created by a team of individuals who are all part of the ETC community.  Professor Ralph Vituccio was the Project Manager, and he asked Stitchbridge, a local ETC start-up company, co-founded by ETC Alumni Sarabeth Boak (’17) and Jaehee Cho (’16) and Tsung-Yu (Jack) Tsai (’16) to be the VR developers.  Additional ETC Alumni involved in the project include Larry Chang (’16), Kyung Kuk Kim (’18), and Julian Korzeniowsky (’18).

Recently, we caught up with Sarabeth Boak (’17), and asked her to share more details about the project:

ETC: How did this project originate and what was the overall goal?

Sarabeth Boak (’17): The client for this project was Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Though originally set for an experience about another culture, there was an opportunity for a group of CMU educators and students to conduct research for the project by visiting Poland to learn about the Holocaust with the Pittsburgh nonprofit Classrooms Without Borders.  We were able to see different concentration camps, the Warsaw Ghetto and various museums related to the history of this period with a goal of creating 2 VR experiences on the subject of the Holocaust.  Initially, we thought we would focus on the documentary VR footage (360-video), but after conducting research, we realized that the nature of the concentration camps being tourist destinations, with inconsistent filming conditions, would make the prospect of filming compelling footage impossible.  We decided to film some documentary style footage, but to focus on capturing reference photos in order to recreate the scene in computer animation.  This allowed us to give the user some degree of freedom through the ability to walk around the digital space.

ETC: What was the most challenging task of the project?

Sarabeth Boak (’17): The most challenging task was balancing the subject matter gravity with engaging VR mechanics.  This creative tension helped evolve the story we wanted to tell, as well as the pacing and interaction design.  The subject of the Holocaust as been covered in many books, movies and other media.  We wanted to make sure what we were making did justice to the subject, was engaging in VR, and was learning-minded.  We’re not historians so we tried to stay as close to primary sources as possible, using survivor voice-over narration, and the photorealistic computer graphics (based on real locations in the camps).

ETC: What was the most rewarding part of the project?

Sarabeth Boak (’17): It was the first time we showed it to a child of Holocaust survivors and she told us how much this kind of experience meant to her.

ETC: Based on visitor feedback, what is the effect on folks who “experience” this project?

Sarabeth Boak (’17): The experience isn’t graphic, but it’s quite intense.  The emotion of listening to survivors describe unimaginable conditions, feeling the environments at scale, and being immersed in the soundscape of the stories in the narration all contribute to making the viewer feel on the verge of an overwhelming feeling.  Some people cry, some people can’t stay in the experience all the way through.  We hope people come out of this experience with an intellectual imperative to learn more about the subject.

Additional information about this project may be found by visiting the Dev Blog Post, or by watching the Trailer.

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