April 19, 2019

Experiencing Jerusalem the Way the Pilgrims Did

Photo by Ricky Rachman

What happens when you merge a 2,000-year-old fortress in the Old City of Jerusalem with some of the hottest minds of the 21st-century Startup Nation? 

The answer can be found in a Herodian-era hall in the Tower of David, where a bustling tech hub develops ways to bring the ancient stones of Jerusalem to life. 

At first, the physical tension between old and new can be jarring. The ancient hall is littered with supersized screens, VR headsets and wireless joysticks. Even the lighting poses a challenge for the hall’s preservation and had to be installed using wire suspensions embedded in tiny nooks between the powdery Jerusalem stones.

One of the main problems facing technologists hoping to augment the museum-going experience, is shifting the mindset of the individuals who run them. It’s what Tower of David Director Eilat Lieber calls the “dinosaur” attitude in which museum directors, curators and, more often than not, stuffy local government bureaucrats are steeped in antiquated notions of what it means to be a producer of historical storytelling. 

The Tower of David, in this respect, stands apart from its peers, especially from historical landmarks in Europe. Last year, the museum launched the Innovation Lab, which specializes in the integration, piloting and development of tech solutions that support and enhance the visitor experience.  It allows companies to use the entire museum — not just the physical space but everything from exhibitions to visitor analysis to PR coverage — as a beta site for new augmented reality/virtual reality applications. In return, the museum gets access to cutting edge technologies that it would otherwise never have the budget for. 

According to the Innovation Lab’s Manager, Devora Mason, the program’s success is partially due to the willingness of the companies to invest their money and resources, essentially making them equal partners with the museum. However, Mason is quick to add that opening the lab was by no means an easy feat. 

“Creating a commercial project inside an NGO is an extremely challenging endeavor,” Mason told the Journal. The museum and the companies need to prepare themselves for failure. But that too, she said, is part of it. 

“We guide the companies in every step of the process. They then have a proof of concept that they can market on. The beauty of the lab is that we can tell other museums not just what worked but what didn’t.” 

The lab’s flagship project, set to open over the Sukkot holiday, is the first VR mobile walking tour of Jerusalem. The guided tour bills itself as experiencing Jerusalem the way the pilgrims did two millennia ago. Stopping at landmark sites in the Old City, users don a VR headset that allows them to experience the Western Wall, Cardo and David’s Citadel the way they looked during the Second Temple era. 

“Stopping at landmark sites in the Old City, users don a VR headset with computer-generated imagery that allows them to experience the Western Wall, Cardo and David’s Citadel the way they looked during the Second Temple era.”

The  tour was created by Lithodomos VR, a Melbourne, Australia-based company  founded in 2016. Co-founder Simon Young said the idea came to him while on a morning jog. “I realized that people visit historical places like the Colosseum or the Roman Forum, and for the most part they don’t know what they’re looking at.” Basing their work on intensive archeological exploration as well as historical texts, artists and software developers were able to replicate roads, sites and landmarks from antiquity. 

“I hate the analogy but it’s kind of like Pokemon Go,” he said, referencing the wildly popular augmented reality game.

Young came up with the idea while working on his doctorate at the University of Melbourne. The university was pushing him to monetize his research. “My dilemma was how was I going to monetize archeology?” he said, laughing. Today, Lithodomos VR operates virtual reality tours in dozens of historical sites all over the world, including in Rome, Athens and London.  

However, Young said implementing the project in Jerusalem was a refreshing change. Israelis, he said, “really fast-tracked the launch which hasn’t happened anywhere else.” 

He recalls the day he struck the deal with the Tower of David. “There was this weird, spiritual moment where we’re sitting with the four ladies who run this place in this massive crusader hall in the basement of the tower,” he said of the meeting between himself, his co-founder Tony Simmons, Mason, Lieber, Deputy Director Tamar Berliner and Director of External Relations Rose Ginosar. “This quiet and calm settled around the room. We all love Israel and we all really want this to happen. It was a real Game of Thrones moment.”

Young said the Jerusalem venture was also extra special because of the city’s significance, not just historically, but in the real, everyday lives of millions of people from the three Abrahamic religions. 

While live-testing Lithodomos’ software at the Western Wall, Young asked a religious man there on his wedding day to try the headset on. Shocked at finding himself suddenly transported to the site of Herod’s Temple — replete with hairline cracks on the flagstones and a smooth sheen on the temple’s gold-tipped pillars — the young groom burst into tears. 

“It brought home for me just how much Jerusalem still means to so many people,” Young said.

For Lieber, no less important is that despite the fact that although Jerusalem has been besieged or destroyed dozens of times, the Tower of David remained intact. As such, it has always been a bridge between different cultures, religions and now, with the help of the innovation lab, between the past and the future.