Ignite 2023: Sara Pitcairn

Augmented Reality at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


Hello, my name is Sarah Pitcairn and I'm a prototype developer and researcher at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I'm part of the museum's Future Projects team, which is an innovation lab that explores new ideas, technologies, and techniques for engaging with Holocaust history. We ask questions, identify opportunities, and evaluate the potential of new approaches.

A lot of my work involves iterative design and learning alongside our audiences about what makes experiences engaging, relevant, and meaningful. Since this is the opening event for the conference, and there are a lot of thought-provoking sessions and conversations ahead, I thought I'd do a little meditation on the theme of openness.

Specifically, I want to talk about how pursuing open-ended exploration, opening up the design process to both internal and external audiences, and being open minded have benefited our team's work. And I'd like to look at this through the lens of a single project, an augmented reality experience called Eishishok Stories that we launched in 2022.

While the focus will be on AR. I believe that this orientation of openness can allow us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of any technology and surface the insights and ideas to use it in a way that resonates. To provide a bit of background, the AR experience takes place in iconic space in the museum's permanent exhibition, The Tower of Faces, which spans multiple floors and comprises over a thousand photographs documenting life before the holocaust in the small town of Eishishok. Eishishok was one of countless Jewish communities devastated during the Holocaust.

Survivor Yaffa Eliyach, pictured here, who grew up there and was instrumental in creating the Tower of Faces, described the intent behind it by saying, “I wanted the museum in Washington to represent Jewish life, to present life before death, and to give to the victims back their identities.”

Through AR, eight museum-provided tablets integrated directly into the display invite visitors to actively explore the lives, identities, and stories behind 30 of the photographs, as well as the community ties that connect them. The AR experience honors the memory of a flourishing community with centuries of history that was destroyed in just a few days in September 1941.

This is the primary message of Eishishok Stories. And everything about the experience, from content to the media elements we incorporated, was designed to convey and reinforce this message, as well as advance the original intent behind the space, that emphasis on life. And we couldn't have reached this clarity of purpose or understood how to best use AR to achieve our goals without open-ended exploration and opening up the design process to visitors from the earliest stages of the project.

The AR experience we launched was the culmination of years of exploration, ranging from very scrappy prototypes made in house with free software tools, to more advanced proof of concepts from outside partners. And we originally chose the tower faces for this exploration, simply because it's a very visual space with little other interpretation.

Across all iterations, we observed and talked to over a hundred visitors–hundreds of visitors–to understand what they are thinking about and doing in the tower faces both with and without AR. By keeping it open ended, we really came to understand both the space and what it means to visitors as well as the technology.

We learned that visitors really appreciate just knowing the stories behind the photographs and the fates of the individuals in them. And visitors are particularly engaged when content is conveyed in 30 seconds or less. We were also intrigued to learn that AR encourages sharing and conversation among visitors, especially when offered on a device larger than a phone.

These insights, along with our primary message and the original intent behind the space, became our north star in the design process. Starting from an open-ended place of just trying to understand what is this technology, where the possibilities can seem endless, is what ultimately allowed us to be very focused and intentional in actually implementing the AR experience.

We also committed to being open minded to creative ideas from our partners. The most important is a brief moment in which a colorized version of a photo appears on screen before fading back to the original. This colorization is something entirely new for the museum and something we honestly wouldn't have considered on our own.

But when we tested it with visitors, we heard overwhelmingly that seeing the photos in color brings the photos and stories to life, which goes back to the original intent behind this memorial space. Openness in all these forms pushed us into that great but sometimes scary place where real learning and transformation occur, which allowed us to create a meaningful new experience for visitors.

And I hope that opening this window into how we work has sparked some ideas for you. Thank you.