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Immersivecomputing @ Eye as Witness, London

All images copyright of Rob Cole unless otherwise stated.

After learning of a Holocaust exhibition in my local newspaper, I contacted the local synagogue that was hosting the exhibition.

“Eye as Witness” was based around an infamous photograph from the Nazi’s “Stroop Report” of World War 2. This report was a bound photo album created by General Stroop and presented to the Nazi top brass as a celebration of their “humane” clearance of the Warsaw ghettos.

The exhibition examined the use of propaganda to manipulate public opinion; in the case of the photograph above, a carefully selected image showing people sitting patiently on the kerbside whilst a soldier stands nearby, gun lowered, to imply no threat.

However, this was not the reality of the situation, and the exhibition had obtained other photographs taken by bystanders (soldiers) and eye witness accounts which showed a very different scenario as to what is seen in the photograph.

Questions surrounding the photograph
image: Holocaust.org.uk

I arrived at the synagogue and was welcomed by staff, making my way downstairs I found the basement had been taken over by the exhibition, with 3 HTC Vive Pro Eye headsets running off wireless adapters and a photo exhibition behind the VR area. The lady running the event was very friendly and talked me through what was being shown.

Questions surrounding the photograph
image: Holocaust.org.uk

After looking at the photo exhibition it was time to try the VR experience. A VR developer from the Mixed Reality laboratory of bNottingham university (who created the VR element in partnership with the organiser) helped fit the Vive Pro Eye onto my head, and encouraged me to walk forward “into” an image of the photograph being projected onto a curtain of cords.

HTC Vive wireless battery

In VR, I could see a recreation of the photograph in front of me, as I walked forward through the curtain I had a tactile sensation of the curtain’s cords moving across me as I breached a point where I was fully immersed inside the “photograph”.

Moving forward into the photograph

Something the organisers had recommended was to “turn around” to see what was happening beyond the official propaganda photo of The Stroop Report.

Fully immersed inside the scene

As suggested, I turned around…and to my surprise saw soldiers with snarling dogs and raised machine guns pointing at the people sitting on the kerb. Behind the soldiers, the ghetto was burning. To my left, large trucks sat waiting to take these people to their deaths in the concentration camps.

The transition between the official photograph and the scene (as recreated from other photographs and eye witness accounts) was shocking, and very powerful. A real sense of threat and menace with no good outcome for the “prisoners” sitting on the kerb.

After my experience finished I spent time talking with the developer (Paul) and the hosts, who said a number of people had found it very emotional and were deeply affected by the exhibition.

VR can be very powerful when used for experiences like “Eye as Witness”, I’d like to thank the organisers, the developer and West Hampstead Synagogue for hosting the event. I certainly learned something I didn’t know anything about beforehand, and went away feeling I had witnessed something important.

The photograph transformed into VR
image Paul Tennent / university of Nottingham

The exhibition is doing a national tour so it may be possible to catch it at another venue, more information here:

https://witness.holocaust.org.uk/exhibition

Thanks for reading! Rob Cole immersivecomputing

By immersivecomputing.org

Human exploration of the immersive computing interface

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