A VR Journey through the Concentration Camps of the Holocaust

Part I: A Production Overview of Our HTC Vive Experience for CMU

Context

A few short weeks after we decided to give startup life a go, our professor at CMU, Ralph, approached us about helping him create virtual reality content for a forthcoming interactive room on the university’s main campus. As an initiative to create more compelling ways to engage students academically, the idea was for the school to produce (over the course of several semesters) a library of content that would give CMU community members a window to other cultures. The first subject they would tackle (and our project with them) would be Poland and the Holocaust. After getting hired, we decided to create 2 VR experiences, one that dealt with the subject of the Holocaust in an interactive way, and one that gave the viewer more historical context for the period. This project included traveling to Poland to shoot footage and reference materials in-person, story development and post production for both experiences.

The following is a summary of our time producing the first of these projects.

Journey through the Camps: An Animated VR Story in the HTC Vive

We knew going into this project we were going to do a piece about the concentration camps in Poland. Partly because of the logistics of our trip with the organization Classrooms without Borders (and with this group, we traveled with with Howard Chandler, a Holocaust Survivor) — the schedule had us visit 3 camps — and partly because of the prominence of these spaces for the history of the Holocaust itself. When preparing story development and pre-production, we immediately ran into several challenges:

  1. How can we capture compelling footage in the middle of a tour group?
  2. How can we differentiate the project from countless other “Auschwitz 360-video walk-through” experiences already published on Youtube today?
  3. How can we recreate the feeling of actually being in the camps, in a way that highlights their place in history?

Because of these questions, we decided to focus our efforts to create a photo-realistic computer animated piece.

  • Photo-realistic computer animation would allow us a measure of quality control for the piece — we wouldn’t be subject to shooting conditions, and could begin story development immediately.
  • It solved the problem of user movement we’d face in making an interactive 360-video: in the Vive, the user could move around the space.
  • It would provide differentiation between the two VR deliverables we were making: the experience in the camps would be story driven, artistic and interactive. The second, would be a documentary style VR film, grounded in historical context.

One of the main draws of using VR is the ability to immerse the user, and allow him/her to feel the space viscerally. We assumed going into this project that these environments of the Holocaust would have their own energy and character, and would ground the history with more physicality and understanding than any book or movie could (and this was true). We wanted to bring that same feeling to the users in Pittsburgh, who would learn the history without having the opportunity to visit the camps in person.

Story Development:

Howard Chandler, Holocaust Survivor and All-Around Inspirational Human

We started the story development process by doing research into Holocaust as a non-fictional and historical fiction story genre, which included watching films (the Pianist, Schindler’s List, A Film Unfinished, Son of Saul, etc) and reading survivor accounts from writers like Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and memoirs like Rena’s Promise. The research continued on the trip, where the group CWB provided tour guides, research materials and Howard’s experience and testimony to give the trip added educational moments.

We settled on the idea of bringing the user through the significant spaces of the camps, and having them bear witness to survivors’ memories. What resulted was a journey where the user sees and feels what it felt like to travel through the camps.

Our environment and theme breakdown was as follows:

  • Setting: Train | Themes: Arrival, Confusion
  • Setting: Shower Room | Themes: Fear, Uncertainty
  • Setting: Barracks | Themes: Survival, Suffering
  • Setting: Crematorium | Themes: Processing Loss, Mourning

One last note on story: much of our experience visiting the camps Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau involved making this very same emotional journey. When you see a train car on the tracks, its inhumanity strikes you. When you walk through the shower room and the barracks, you immediately feel a combination of fear, sadness, anger, disgust and more. When you see the ovens in the crematoriums, you feel everything again, and also incredulity. How could this have happened? The reason to visit these terrible places is to fully understand the conditions that lead to such a tragic event in modern history. Visiting these places in VR gives users as close to real experience as is possible, perhaps more. We end the story by showing archival photographs of the time, real life images of the people affected by these horrific events, to remind the user of the real faces behind the experience.

Art: Environments & Reference Photos

On the trip to Poland, we focused on capturing 360-videos, 360-photos and high res photos to capture context, layout as well as texture of the spaces. Below are some examples.

Shower Room | CG vs. Reference
Barracks | CG vs. Reference
Train Car | CG vs. Reference
Crematorium | CG vs. Reference

Art: Screen Grabs from Play Through

The art in this experience focused on the space itself, though we bring out the idea of “Presence” through adding stand in human figures, guards and moments that acknowledge (in some way) the users’ participation in the experience.

Some Screen Capture of Interactive Moments

Audio:

Soundscape: We decided to use a realistic soundscape, to draw the user in even more into the story. This made sense when combined with the photo-realistic assets in the experience. Examples: Train ride, German VO recordings for guards, the barking of dogs.

Voiceover: In deciding to use real survivors’ words in the voiceover narration, we made the choice to use a neutral accent, as the narration would be in English. In this sense, the voiceover becomes less about a single person’s thoughts, and more about the universal experience of survival.***

***EDIT: After testing the experience with students, educators, historians and many others, we decided to use the real survivor voices to narrate the piece. This required some extra work in finding quotations that matched our pacing, or even altering the pacing of the experience to better match the VO clip, but in the end made the experience richer and more emotional. Ultimately the real voices gave the piece authenticity that recreated voice actors could never capture.

Interactions:

The HTC Vive comes with controllers that allow users to interact the the VR space using their hands. As a result, our interactions are gaze triggers, essentially visual hotspots.

We decided against using the controllers because:

  • We felt very conscious about creating a “game” about the Holocaust, and using controllers felt more like a game.
  • The audience would range greatly, between tech-savvy and vr-newbie. We wanted to have an interaction that was intuitive for all levels of user.
  • Interactions were important for us to include, even though they are more passive than most, because it allowed us to pace the transitions, direct our user’s gaze, and give some element of exploration to the space.

Final Thought:

As we wrap up production on this project, and begin to think about its place on campus, the promise of VR plays through our minds. How do you teach the history of the Holocaust? VR takes the context of information found in books and film, and puts it into virtual practice.

Journey through the Camps is the first VR experience in a series of projects for Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich School. Stitchbridge worked in partnership with Professor Ralph Vituccio to produce the experience between July 2017–February 2018. It will be installed on CMU’s campus in Pittsburgh in Spring 2018.