Charles Palmer: How Technology Brings History To Life

The Past Is Prologue

Charles Palmer's technology brings history to life. (Photo by Bob Skalkowski)

How would you like to chat with Benjamin Franklin? Think it’s impossible? Not so, says Charles Palmer, executive director at Harrisburg University’s Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Palmer, 43, runs one of only two such studios in the nation. He oversees the new media curriculum and game development workshop as well as a summer academy at the university, and he has completed projects for the American Red Cross and The National Civil War Museum, among many others.

Using what’s called “synthetic interviews,” Palmer and his team recreate historical characters with a little help from actors and a lot of technology; the actors, in character, answer questions about their subjects’ lives and work.

“It’s a great tool for synthesizing information and business processes, says Palmer, who sees applications for synthetic interviews in classrooms and in some business spaces. “Imagine getting scholars around the world to talk about their fields of interest, then taking it into the classroom and telling students, ‘Now that you’ve been reading about it, let’s talk to some experts on global warming and get their opinions.’ It would be like calling up Einstein and having a chat about astrophysics,” Palmer says.

Here’s how a synthetic interview gets created: The team consults with historians or topic experts to generate answers to commonly asked questions. They then hire an actor to portray a historical figure, say, African American inventor Lewis Latimer. They film the actor answering several hundred questions. The answers are then transcribed and key worded; the keywords are then stored in a database. When a guest asks a question of the system, that information is processed and matched against the keywords in the database; an answer is then presented to the user as a video clip in which the actor is portraying the historical figure. The process can take up to 12 weeks, depending on the figure and volume of information collected.

Palmer notes that in the business space, the technology could have applications for training, particularly as companies become increasingly global. “If you have a sales force in Dallas and another in Tokyo, it would be a good tool to train them about company processes or cultural differences,” he says.

With a university investment in studio and equipment of approximately $1 million, Palmer also works with students to develop skills such as digital storytelling, nonlinear narratives that change as the user becomes part of the story and the story’s environment. “Synthetic interviews have a great implication for enhancing the Web 2.0 experience. Imagine a system armed with a video-equipped cell phone, then anyone could  become a content creator. You could interview a professional about their work, record answers about your neighborhood, or log public reactions at social or political events. These clips could be uploaded, automatically key worded, and tagged to your location. Then the next user who wanders by could listen, respond, and reflect on your content. And hopefully, they could add to the discussion, augmenting the location with its own social commentary,” which, Palmer says, is much like storytelling.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.