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April 12, 2016 6:23 am

At Israel’s Tower of David, Startup Nation Meets ‘Storytelling Nation’

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avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman /

The April 7-8 "hackathon" in Crusaders Hall at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. Photo: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman.

The April 7-8 “hackathon” in Crusaders Hall at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. Photo: Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman. – The inside of the Kishle, a structure erected in 1834 by Ibrahim Pasha, who governed the land of Israel from Egypt, is cold and dark. When the Ottoman Turks regained the area in 1841, it served as a military compound. During the British Mandate, it was used as a police station and prison where some members of the Jewish underground were incarcerated.

The stories of the Kishle are endless. If only its walls could talk.

Actually, soon, the stone walls of the Kishle —a nd other areas of the adjacent Citadel and Tower of David Museum complex in Jerusalem — might virtually speak, thanks to the work of 100 computer programmers and other tech-savvy individuals who spent 30 hours from April 7-8 creating augmented reality, virtual reality, and gaming solutions to enhance museum visitors’ experiences as well as to bring the stories, places, and people of ancient Jerusalem to life. Jerusalem’s “Hacking the Walls” event was the first museum-sponsored “hackathon” in Israel.

The event’s first prize went to participants Royi Elbag and Yaara Ilan of ARCH, a company that deals with applications for archaeological sites, and three whizz kids — 12th grader Malachi Shneor and 9th graders Ofer Stolev and Yuval Goldshmidt. Calling their group Zombie Rat, the youth team presented “Escape the Kishle,” a game to be played on the ENTiTi augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) platform created by Waking App. Escape the Kishle is based on the popular “escape room” video game concept, but uses the augmented reality to infuse the experience with voices from inmates held in the historic Kishle prison. The game takes users into the times of the Crusaders, King Herod, the Hasmoneans, and King Hezekiah, bringing to life the different periods of Jerusalem’s rich and dramatic history.

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“A coin or stone or mosaic, these are just examples of what was a whole world — a small part of the puzzle,” said Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum. “Archaeology is just stones, but where are the people? Where is the story?…Technology can help us imagine.”

“Hacking the Walls” drew some prominent sponsors, including the Epson electronics giant, whose representative brought the company’s new BT200 transparent smart glasses in hopes of encouraging participants to find new ways to use that technology in the museum world.

The first-prize winners received a 5,000-shekel ($1,327) prize, a pair of Epson Moverio BT200 glasses, and the opportunity to leverage support from AtoBe Accelerator at the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem. The second-prize winners created a virtual reality experience of Jerusalem called Jeruz361degree, giving users the ability to explore 360-degree views of the city and of specific sites.  The third-prize winners developed the idea of placing smart cameras around the museum at all of the best spots for photos. Through these cameras and by leveraging face-recognition technology, a museum would be able to provide visitors with personalized photo albums as souvenirs.

The hackathon and a subsequent April 11 conference, “Museums in a Digital Age — Enhancing the Visitor Experience,” are part of a growing international initiative to infuse new life into museums. Lieber said that museum visitors’ patience is dwindling. While visitors used to spend two or more hours exploring the halls of history, today’s visitors want a 30-minute crash course. Additionally, with the growth of the Internet, there are quicker ways than museums or libraries to learn about the past, leaving museums at risk of becoming irrelevant. But AR/VR can engage the imagination of visitors.

Jerusalem’s Tower of David has been a pioneer in the use AR/VR for museums. In the last 18 months, the museum has launched more than 10 applications that help bring the tower museum to life. Among them is an app that allows visitors to scan the skyline above the tower with their iPad to receive a map of the most important historical icons in the area. When an icon is clicked, the visitor can watch a video or hear audio about the location.

The museum’s technology initiatives represent the height of old meets new, a juxtaposition of ancient and modern. This dynamic is helping make Jerusalem the AR/VR capital of Israel and perhaps the world.

“It is working because there is so much inspiration in this place,” said Helen Wexler, director of JNext, the Jerusalem Development Authority’s (JDA) technology and entrepreneurship program. “There is a richness of content that you cannot get anywhere else.”

According to Itzik Ozer, director of business management for JDA, there has been a technological renaissance in the last three years in Jerusalem. Today, an average of 350 technology events take place each year in the holy city, which boasts 15 venture capital firms and 12 new start-up accelerator programs. This month, Jerusalem hosted events such as the 2016 Forbes Under 30 Summit, Cyber Night, and Hacking the Walls. Jerusalem will also host Geek Picnic — the largest Eastern European open-air festival dedicated to popular science, modern technology, science, and art — from April 24-28.

AR/VR technology is a perfect match for Jerusalem because it is technology rooted in design and content, according to Wexler. Fifty-percent of the design talent in Israel is trained in Jerusalem.

“Right now, the world is sputtering in technology,” said Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film Fund. “But more important is storytelling. People don’t yet know how to tell a story with virtual reality — or even what is a good story to tell with virtual reality. Israel has become a ‘start-up nation,’ but we were always a storytelling nation….Silicon Valley is working on technology. France is talking about language. Here, we do it together and that is going to be our thing.”

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