At the time of coronavirus, Jerusalem comes to pilgrims in VR

A new Stereo 360 VR documentary called “The Holy City” launched by The Tower of David Museum brings visitors inside the city’s holiest sites ahead of the holidays of Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

The Old City as depicted by the VR documentary Holy City, by the Tower of David Museum and the Israeli Canadian company Blimey. (photo credit: COURTESY HOLY CITY VR)
The Old City as depicted by the VR documentary Holy City, by the Tower of David Museum and the Israeli Canadian company Blimey.
(photo credit: COURTESY HOLY CITY VR)
As the coronavirus crisis continues, with people all over the world stuck at home, Jerusalem is coming to the public’s living rooms in virtual and augmented realities.
The Tower of David Museum initiative comes in time for Passover, Easter and Ramadan, which will fall in the same month for the first time since 1992.
In the Old City, after the heavy rains stop washing up the smooth white stones and winds cease battering ancient alleys, spring usually marks a time of renewed energy and spirituality, with thousands flocking to the holy sites during the holidays.
Planned as part of the museum exhibition, the stereo 360 VR movie “Holy City” puts users in the middle of hundreds pouring their hearts out to God at the Western Wall wrapped in white shawls as well as at the feet of al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and in the solemn procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where worshipers visit the place where Jesus was buried, according to Christian tradition.
“We are now in very challenging times and unfortunately this spring, pilgrims, visitors and travelers cannot come to Jerusalem, but technology can help,” the museum’s director Eilat Lieber told The Jerusalem Post. “We can bring the city and its spirituality to people at home and they can join the festivals and be part of what happens every year.”
Lieber explained that watching the documentary, which can be done both on a flat screen or with a VR headset, cannot of course completely substitute the experience of visiting the city or the museum, but “it still gives the idea of what Jerusalem represents for so many people all over the world.”
The video is made available on their website for a small fee, however will be made free starting the first day of Passover April 9, through Easter weekend, and until the first day of Ramadan on April 14.
“Hopefully, next spring visitors will be able to come in person and enjoy the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere around [the city] but meanwhile we invite them to join our project.”
The initiative was developed in a two-year cooperation between the Tower of David’s experts, Israeli-Canadian company Blimey and OccupiedVR.
“The aim of ‘The Holy City’ is to restore the majesty of the unique multiculturalism this city offers and give access to rituals and sites that few are exposed to,” Nimrod Shanit, director and producer of the documentary told the Post. “With its collaborative inter-religious cooperation, ‘The Holy City’ celebrates the rich cultural diversity of Jerusalem and fosters an inclusive sense of humanity.”
The project marks the first time that the holiest sites of Jerusalem have been captured using both volumetric scanning, and stereo 360 VR filming, with an interfaith team of Jewish, Christian and Muslim innovators participating in the endeavor.
“Virtual reality offers a new medium for experiencing sights remotely, and in these dark times of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, these immersive technologies have an incredible opportunity to shine and step up as a tool for taking people confined to their homes for a breath of fresh air outside of their confinements,” Shanit added.
“With the holy sites in Jerusalem inaccessible, VR can become a virtual alternative for reaching out to these places of worship, a new form of virtual pilgrimage than can be achieved. This new immersive experience virtually places visitors in some of the most exclusive and hard to reach locations in Jerusalem as if they were actually there,” Shanit concluded.
“Holy City” is one of the outcomes of the museum’s innovation lab that aims to bring together the expanding start-up ecosystem in Jerusalem, investors and hi-tech companies to develop new imaging and illustrative technologies that can be used to enhance the visitor experience.
The director of the Tower of David pointed out that they are always looking for new opportunities to engage visitors.
“We are the museum of the history of Jerusalem in a very unique way. We are here to tell its story to the world, not only what is related to Judaism, but also to Christianity and Islam,” Lieber explained. “We are in a special location, the citadel of the city, which represents all the layers of its history and features beautiful architecture.”
She highlighted that a few years ago the museum decided to use this structure to project content on the walls.
“Our first technological initiative was a night light show and millions of people have enjoyed it so far. We have also been the first ones to offer a virtual reality tour in the city using headsets incorporated in the regular tour. We can see that the young generations find it very fascinating and exciting and for us, this is the right direction,” she told the Post.
“We hope to use more and more technology in the future with the support of relevant companies because we realized that we have a lot of content, ideas and visitors and for the companies, this is a win-win situation, since they can use our system, knowledge, archives, collections to develop their products,” Lieber concluded. “Technology is just a tool, the message is the content, we are storytellers and together we can do great things.”