Museum meets virtual reality at Tower of David’s new Innovation Lab

Old City of Jerusalem institution expands role with aim of hosting ‘startup ecosystem’

A man takes a look through Augmented Reality glasses at the Innovation Lab event at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem's Old City, October 17, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A man takes a look through Augmented Reality glasses at the Innovation Lab event at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem's Old City, October 17, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Tuesday saw the launch of the TOD Innovation Lab, hosted by the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem and sponsored by the Jerusalem Development authority.

The project intends to be an ongoing addition to the museum experience, functioning as exhibition space, work center and beta-testing site for startups developing virtual reality and augmented reality technology designed to transform and enhance the cultural learning experience inside the museum and on the web. More than 20 startups are currently participating, and more will join as the project continues.

At first glance the new project is a portrait of contrasts. The Tower of David citadel’s sprawling courtyard is a maze of pathways, steps and stone walls, with trees and grassy areas offering a space to cool down in the hot early afternoon of October in Jerusalem. Spread out in the nooks and crannies of this 2000-year-old edifice are the startups exhibiting with the TOD Innovation Lab, complete with big screens, VR goggles, and robotic prototypes. While the technologies displayed vary somewhat, all are VR and AR-driven, and are seen by the event organizers as potential game-changers for museums and cultural sites, in Israel and around the world.

“The museum itself is an innovative space,” said Innovation Lab director Devora Mason.

Mason said the museum will now take an active role in promoting the development of AR and VR technology with a strong focus on interactivity, a “new engaging experience” that “leaves you [the visitor] with an empathetic feeling afterword.”

The JDA invested NIS 2.7 million ($770,000) into the project, making it the main sponsor. Companies are not charged by the museum – which sees 400,000 visitors annually – for using its space but are accepted on the basis of their “relevance and usefulness” to the technological objectives set out by the Innovation Lab, namely enhancing the museum experience and making it more interactive. They have access to a workspace, equipment and a platform to seek out experts and investors.

It’s an experimental project, organizers say, but director Mason said that in her vision it is “an inseparable part of the overall museum.”

The drive to innovation has gripped the 30-year-old museum — which announced a 5-year, $30 million renovation in May — and going forward may come to define it.

“It’s a mindset,” said Caroline Shapiro, director of International Public Relations at the museum. “Which is more than the physical space.”

The tension between the space — understood as matter and history – and the tech – meaning future and data — is palpable, but not necessarily contradictory. The VR technology on display doesn’t seek to replace the historical sites but rather to make them more interactive, more alive, and accessible to people who won’t be visiting the museum, or coming to Israel at all for that matter.

“This is the right place and the right timing,” said Shahar Matorin, Israel country manager for Startup Grind, which is a cosponsor of the Innovation Lab.

Speaking on the Tower of David rooftop overlooking the courtyard, Matorin said he believes this project is crucial not just economically, but culturally, and that through VR and AR technology “we have to save history for the younger generation.”

Startups showcase their wares at the Innovation Lab launch event at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City, on October 17, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The startups on hand presented their products in varying stages of development, ranging from early development to fully-functioning prototypes. Some, like Jerusalem based Sixdof.Space, are focused on improving the VR experience, focusing on consumer complaints about headsets.

“One of the biggest problems with VR is user nausea,” said CTO Daniel Greenspan.

Greenspan said that this is caused by VR response times, which usually are at 15 milliseconds or above. Greenspan and his 10-person team believe that by reducing the response time to under 10 milliseconds, user nausea can be eliminated, thus helping VR enormously in consumer markets. He said they are in talks with numerous companies, and hope to have a fully functioning prototype within six months.

Herzliya-based Woojer, whose backers include Eli Harari and Peter Chou, former CEOs of SanDisk and HTC, is also working to improve the VR and AR experience with an eye to making it accessible those with auditory disabilities. The VR belt and vests they are developing transform sound, and mood, into vibrations that are felt by the user. Software and Tools manager Boaz Feldman said that this is crucial for VR and AR to move forward.

“In VR everyone takes the visual and the sound, but no one takes care of the feeling,” Feldman said. “We are the last piece of the puzzle.”

Many of the startups present are focused on taking the architectural, spiritual and archaeological splendor of Jerusalem and making it accessible to anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer. A strong emphasis is placed on the shared Abrahamic patrimony of the city, a priority shared by museum director and chief curator Eilat Lieber.

“This is the only place Jewish people, Christians and Muslims can [all] come and find their story, their narrative,” she said.

Startups MARstorytelling and BlimeyTV and tourism project iVisitIsrael are all developing interactive virtual tours focused on Jerusalem and more specifically on its holy sites. With Tel Aviv-based MARstorytelling’s tour, which functions on smartphone and tablet, images of the past are superimposed onto present-day historical sites, adding context and explanation.

A woman uses Augmented Reality glasses as Start Up groups showcase their products at the Innovation Lab event at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Old City, on October 17, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This, said director Ori Noam, allows for a greater storytelling experience, something he said is less developed in 3D that 2D.

“We want to be at the frontier of that development,” said Noam. “When you have more history, context and drama, with interaction…the interest will be higher.”

iVisitIsrael and BlimeyTV’s “The Holy City” Project have conducted 360 scans of major sites in Jerusalem, like Rachel’s Tomb, the streets of the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Tower of David Museum itself. iVisitIsrael’s virtual tours are based on interactive tablet and smartphone 360 visualizations, while “The Holy City” uses VR headsets to attempt to give visitors a full immersion, mixing elements of VR, gaming and 360 technologies.

iVisitIsrael’s Chaen Glazer has worked with Birthright/Taglit in the past and said she hopes VR can help tourism.

“It gives us a peek,” Glazer said. “I hope it encourages people to come.”

The environment around the new project is meant to be on only innovative but also competitive. Since the future identity of the museum is now heavily invested in new VR and AR technologies, that’s not exactly surprising.

“Some may succeed and some may fail,” said Mason of the startups participating. “We’re not buying a product, we’re supporting a startup ecosystem.”

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