Abraham Lincoln is the focus of a new interactive exhibit at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. The Great Emancipator, as played by veteran stage and TV actor James Hayney, answers visitors' questions about war strategy, the evils of slavery, and the high and low points of his career.
Designed and produced by Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), the exhibit uses Carnegie Mellon's Synthetic Interview Technology to give visitors selective access to hours of video depicting Lincoln and six other figures — including Mary Todd Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.
"A Synthetic Interview deeply engages people with a person or time period in a way that just isn't possible when passively viewing a film," said Don Marinelli, executive producer of the ETC. "And when we pair this technology with a figure as revered as Abraham Lincoln, the effect is powerful."
He added, "I think visitors to the National Civil War Museum will see some unexpected sides of Lincoln at this exhibit and will leave the museum with a fresh appreciation of why he remains such a towering figure in American history."
Visitors can select from 200 questions that they can ask of Lincoln, and from about 10-12 questions for each of the secondary characters. In response, a life-size video image of Lincoln or one of the other characters answering the question is projected in the exhibit kiosk.
Work on the Synthetic Interview began last September at the ETC and was led by supervising producer Shirley Saldamarco. Another ETC faculty member, Ralph Vituccio, director of media-special projects, wrote the script and directed the videotaping, and a third, digital artist John Dessler, wrote the software that retrieves the appropriate video in response to each question.
Synthetic Interview Technology was developed in 1998 by Scott Stevens and Michael Christel, ETC senior systems scientists. With the help of actors, it has been used to create interactive experiences with historic figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and George Westinghouse. It also has been used with video of actual Fox Sports' NASCAR drivers and analysts.
A Synthetic Interview of Marinelli is also included in copies of his new book about the ETC and the center's co-founder Randy Pausch, "The Comet and The Tornado."