People take part in a Step into History guided walking tour at the Tower of David Museum. (RICKY RACHMAN)
Through virtual reality, Jerusalem gives tourists a look at the Holy Land as Jesus would have seen it.
JERUSALEM — IN THE basement of an ancient fortress in Jerusalem, a set of stone steps peaks out of the ground. Archeologists believe that 2,000 years ago these steps were part of an ornate pool inside the palace of King Herod, the controversial figure who, according to the Christmas story, ordered the death of all baby boys following the birth of Jesus. Such lush beauty is hard to imagine among the dusty rocks here today. But put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and the rocks vanish, replaced by a refreshing pool, whose waters sparkle in the sunlight. Colorful tiles cover the floor, and nearby stands a white palace, one of many monumental structures Herod is credited with building here.
Thanks to virtual reality technology, tourists headed to the Holy Land over the holidays can get a glimpse of what Jerusalem looked like in Jesus's era. A covered street selling modern souvenirs is transformed into a line of shops selling clay vessels; apartment buildings and hotels outside the city walls become empty desert; and the slope that contains Judaism's revered Western Wall and Islam's third-holiest mosque is replaced by a sprawling temple complex.
Step Into History guided walking tours, launched this fall, uses GPS-enabled virtual reality technology to allow participants to see about a dozen points throughout the city. The tours are the first product to come out of the Tower of David Innovation Lab, a startup hub in the Tower of David Museum, which is housed in an ancient citadel in Jerusalem's walled Old City.
Focused on developing the virtual- and augmented reality products increasingly in demand in the global tourism sector, the year-old lab is funded by the city of Jerusalem, which has seen a record-high number of tourists in 2018. The city sees the lab as an opportunity to create more high tech companies, which it sees as key to economic growth, while the museum is eager for new tools to engage tourists with the city's long and complicated past.
"We felt we needed to find a new language to engage the people, aside from books and exhibits," says Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum, which uses exhibits as well as archaeological remains to chronicle 4,000 years of Jerusalem's history. The sprawling citadel complex – whose oldest remains date back about 2,400 years, but whose main structure was built later and modified throughout the years – is a record of Jerusalem through the ages.
"Rocks and archaeology can be confusing and even boring," Lieber says. But "technology is the language that allows us to bring those rocks to life."
The lab sits inside a room with stone walls and high arched ceilings that was once the reception hall for the pashas, the high-ranking military and political officials who governed the city during 400 years of Ottoman rule. Today it's an open-plan workspace, with desks, computer screens and a few people wearing VR goggles as they test their products. A brightly-colored carpet hides hundreds of feet of new wiring for electricity and high-speed internet.
To create the 3D images for the Step into History tours, the Australian startup Lithodomos VR, which has an office in the lab, drew on extensive archaeological records and ancient texts.
"Millions of hours of archaeological research just sits on library shelves, but now we are using that to help people understand and experience what used to be," says Simon Young, executive archaeologist and founder of Lithodomos, which has digital libraries of more than 80 ancient sites in virtual reality.
While Lithodomos brings the past alive, another startup in the lab is helping make the present more accessible.
The Holy City VR is developing virtual reality experiences that allow people to witness some of Jerusalem's hard-to-access religious ceremonies. VR glasses allow anyone to stand among the rows of men at Friday prayers at the city's Al Aqsa Mosque, an event only accessible to Muslims. The glasses also place users among crowds of Jewish men draped in prayer shawls at the biannual Priestly Blessing ceremony at the Western Wall, and at the annual Holy Fire ceremony in the sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At each place, a real local resident, recreated through holographic technology, walks next to the visitor, talking and acting as a guide.
"Now these experiences are accessible to anyone, and one also gets a better sense of the people of Jerusalem, of the stories of Jerusalem," says Nimrod Shanit, a Jerusalem-born former photojournalist who runs The Holy City with Roman Catholic and Muslim partners. The mix of people of different religions allows the company, which also has offices in Canada, to film in all of the city's sectors, Shanit says.
In addition to developing ways to increase understanding and access to Jerusalem, the lab's startups see a lucrative global market for their products. Virtual reality is playing a growing role in tourism, from armchair journeys to destination marketing campaigns to museum exhibits. Cities around the world, including Rome, Barcelona and Pula, Croatia, are now offering walking tours that use virtual reality to help visitors understand their history.
"It has a lot of value in tourism, both for education and for entertainment," says Daniel Guttentag, assistant professor in tourism and hospitality at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who has studied the use of virtual reality in the sector. "It's a new layer of engagement."
The Tower of David lab is also part of a growing high-tech scene in Jerusalem, something many say is crucial to the city's future. There are now about 600 high-tech and biomedical companies in Jerusalem, up from 250 in 2012, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority. In 2017, Startup Compass ranked Jerusalem among the top 28 best tech ecosystems in the world.
"We are starting to see a change in the city," says Itzik Ozer, senior director of business development at the Jerusalem Development Authority, which in 2016 launched a 350-million-shekel ($93 million) five-year plan to encourage growth in the high tech industry. The plan focuses on adding startup accelerators, training programs and other initiatives to encourage the building of new innovative companies within the city's existing cultural, educational and medical institutions.
Creating more jobs here in high-tech – a sector that has fueled Israel's overall national economic growth but is largely based in Tel Aviv – is key to lowering Jerusalem's poverty rate and stopping the exodus of educated people from the city, Ozer says.
The Tower of David Innovation Lab is what brought Meron Wilf, an entrepreneur with a marketing technology background, to Jerusalem to help launch the startup Six Realities, which is developing location-based mixed reality experiences for tourists, such as treasure hunts and guided walks filled with virtual objects and virtual people.
"There is something magical about Jerusalem, because of the stones, because of the stories," says Wilf, who is from Ashdod, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv. "All of that is inspiring, and really influences your work. If you can make something here, you can make something anywhere."