Welcome to the first installment of VR Visionaries, where we’ll highlight some of VR’s most innovative, artistic experiences and the amazing creators behind them. Our goal is to introduce exciting new content, shed some light on the development process, and inspire even more artists and storytellers to work their magic on the VR stage.
An official selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, this immersive VR short film takes you inside the world of the feature-length documentary Zero Days to experience the high-stakes reality of cyber warfare at human scale. Scatter Co-Founder & Creative Director Yasmin Elayat gives us the inside scoop on the goal behind Zero Days VR, volumetric filmmaking, and episodic VR content.
What inspired you to tell this particular story in VR?
Yasmin Elayat: Analysts predict that 2017 is the year of cyber warfare, where a cyber attack on critical infrastructure in a major economy will occur. A global issue on the rise, cyber warfare is an intangible topic often misunderstood by the general public, yet it’s already happening in our own backyard. It’s an unregulated form of warfare where governments are tight-lipped and information is highly classified.
Zero Days VR places audiences inside the invisible world of computer viruses and brings to life this intangible world in a format that resonates with the conflict itself—virtual reality. Our goal is to educate and communicate how this digital threat is closer to home than we realize.
What does VR add to this experience that wouldn’t be possible using conventional filmmaking techniques?
YE: In Zero Days VR, the story of Stuxnet comes to life in a new way—from the perspective of the implanted virus. Viewers are guided through a series of immersive digital worlds—from Natanz, the heavily protected underground Iranian nuclear facility infected by the virus, to traveling into the heart of the virus itself, witnessing the rise and retaliation of Iran’s cyber army, and finally into NSA headquarters, where you hear the testimony of an NSA informant.
Zero Days VR takes an innovative approach to VR using volumetric filmmaking and DepthKit. Volumetric filmmaking, a technique pioneered by Scatter, fuses the world of video games with truly 3D live action video. This means that interactive 3D experiences can contain real people and real stories, the testimony of our NSA informant. This exciting new format lets us tell stories that can’t be told in any other way. The result is a truly immersive documentary native to the medium.
What was it like to work with Alex Gibney? How did his participation influence the project?
YE: It all started with the NSA informant. Scatter collaborated with Gibney on his feature film to anonymize the testimony of an NSA informant in an innovative way—in the language of code using our volumetric filmmaking tool DepthKit to create the VFX in the documentary. My partners James and Alexander showed our Gear VR prototype to Gibney and his executive producer Sarah Dowland, and they were sold. As we set out to create our original adaptation of the film, Gibney joined our team as Executive Producer.
The key challenge of Zero Days VR was how to adapt a highly informative, journalistic two-hour film into an immersive VR experience that’s made for an emotive medium. We had to prioritize and maintain the journalistic integrity of the story and approach these intangible concepts in a way that connected to the audience.
By drawing from actual interviews conducted by Gibney and collaborating with him to ensure the journalistic integrity of our adaptation, we were able to create impressionistic, immersive worlds to illustrate this complex information in an innovative, visceral way and spread literacy around this urgent topic.
How did you bring the experience to life at Sundance?
YE: Sundance audiences came to the Zero Days VR installation, where they sat in a recreation of a sparse NSA office. After experiencing the Stuxnet journey, at the end of the piece we put them inside the experience. We used DepthKit and an Intel RealSense depth camera to capture the viewer as they were watching the experience. The end result was that our audience saw themselves captured in real-time as a volumetric digital apparition inside the experience.
The goal with the installation was to really drive home the point that cyber warfare is something that implicates and affects all of us directly. You become part of this digital world and, hopefully, the experience hits closer to home.
What are the benefits of site-specific installations when it comes to showcasing emerging tech and the new types of storytelling it enables?
YE: Our team members come from backgrounds designing and making site-specific installations. It’s about crafting spaces for your audience and thinking spatially about how you build a story and experientially guide them through it. Our hybrid backgrounds heavily influence how we approach our immersive documentaries. We see ourselves as story designers who are crafting worlds that invite and engage our audience. An installation gives us the chance to extend that world into physical space, making our presentations a unique experience.
Coming from this background, it’s exciting to work in an emerging medium like VR because we’re not standing on years of best practices and there’s so much more freedom to explore.
What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can share?
YE: Our next big project is Blackout, a VR documentary inviting New Yorkers to share stories in their own voice. Blackout illuminates the moments when our lives intersect in a space where differences are most visible—the subway. It’s an ongoing, participatory project gathering real experiences from this political moment.
In Blackout, you ride the New York subway and you can hear the thoughts and stories of the strangers around you. It’s an episodic series, with an evolving cast. Episode 1 deals with timely issues around identity and otherness. No two experiences are the same—with every viewing you meet different strangers and hear different stories.
How would you characterize the relationship between VR, AR, and MR? In what ways do you see these emerging art forms and XR more broadly evolving over the next few years?
YE: We see potential in the entire spectrum of technologies that can add a story layer or texture to our world—whether it’s visual, aural, and fully immersive like VR or happening in the space around you like MR. As creators, we see unique potential and exciting ways to think about narrative across XR that are native to each medium. Once we understand the affordances of each approach, we make sure to always lead with story first, choosing the most appropriate technology.
Thanks for the insights, Yasmin. We hope even more creators are inspired to explore the intersections of storytelling and tech.
— The Oculus Team