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Become the Virus in Zero Days VR: A Revolutionary Immersive Documentary

I’m not sure what I was expecting to experience when I sat down to try Zero Days VR in Sundance’s VR Palace, but when I took the Oculus off, my mind was spinning. And not just because I’d been through a crash course in cyberwarfare and military history; I had that rare feeling when I go through a VR experience and think, “This changes things.”

But okay, let’s back up. What is Zero Days VR?

A still from Zero Days VR by Yasmin Elayat, Elie Zananiri and Scatter, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Zero Days VR is a documentary about cyberwarfare, particularly a virus called Stuxnet, which was developed by the United States and Israeli governments to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities,” said Technical Director Elie Zananiri. “This happened around 2010. The documentary was based on a feature-length film by Alex Gibney, called Zero Days as well. It’s an adaptation in VR that’s covering the discovery of Stuxnet—how it came about and how people found out that it existed.”

If that sounds like a head trip, let me assure you: it absolutely is. One of the great accomplishments of Zero Days VR is how it weaves complex information with stunning visual content to hijack your mind. As you push through the digital world, moving through interlocking grids and pulsing magma-waves of data, it becomes apparent that you are the driving force. According to Yasmin Elayat, director of the experience and creative director/partner at Scatter, the production company behind Zero Days VR, that wasn’t an accident.

“Essentially we let you embody the Stuxnet virus itself as it goes on this journey through these digital worlds and sabotaging the Iranian nuclear facility,” said Elayat. “So you get to travel through these different physical and digital worlds and learn about the world of cyberwarfare and [its] high stakes…in our world.”

These intricately detailed digital environments situate users in the kind of netherspace that the cyberworld entails while simultaneously “grounding” us in the very real physical impacts cyberwarfare can have. To boot, Elayat’s keen cinematic sensibility lends the piece the tonal and atmospheric gravitas one might expect from an auteur filmmaker: that sense that you’re being ushered through the story by an expert.

“This project started with our character, our whistleblower,” said Elayat. “Essentially Scatter was asked to collaborate with Alex Gibney on the feature film, the documentary, where he wanted to wait to make his informant anonymous in a way that was native to the world of code and the language of code. James and Alexander actually worked on the visual effects of that project.”

The James and Alexander in question are James George and Alexander Porter, two of the founders of DepthKit, Scatter’s “sister company.” The cooperation between the two companies points toward the future of production pipelines for narrative VR.

“Scatter and DepthKit are sister companies, we are a production arm while DepthKit is a product company that does volumetric filmmaking,” said Elayat. “We collaborated on this piece because one of the key characters is an informant, a whistleblower, and she’s been captured volumetrically using DepthKit.”

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DepthKit works with Scatter to align cutting-edge tech with storytelling needs.

“We work with Scatter to create far-out ideas for projects that push the tools and make the product team at DepthKit have to invent new processes that really work on the ground,” said George, who also served as Executive Producer/Technical Advisor on Zero Days VR. “The real opportunity here is that, especially in volumetric video VR, there’s not a lot of projects that have been made that really show what it can do.”

Which is part of the reason Zero Days VR is one of the most aesthetically powerful pieces of VR to date—but the process has also helped the DepthKit team develop their system based on user needs.

“We’re building DepthKit as a toolset to enable filmmakers to create volumetric video VR experiences,” said George. “Through the process of creating Zero Days, we refined our Unity plugin and created a lot of awesome effects—all that work that we did together will be rolled into the project and be released to the community of DepthKit users who are currently in beta.”

Using cutting-edge technology to portray the impact of technology helped serve the larger vision of the project: communicate just how real of a threat cyberwarfare can be.

“One of our biggest goals has been that we wanted to make sure that people understand the kind of high-stakes of cyberwarfare and really have it hit close to home,” said Elayat. “I think, at least when everyone’s taking it off and there just like, ‘I’m a little scared, I’m a little nervous,’  that’s kind of the reaction we want to get, we want people to really get it and care about the topic.”

[Warning, SPOILER ALERT in the following two paragraphs].

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For many of the reasons mentioned above, Zero Days VR accomplishes the feat of being a piece that could only exist in VR. Where that shines the most, though, lies in the ways it implicates viewers in the final moments—by projecting a real-time, volumetric hologram of yourself into the experience. You sit across from the whistleblower as she explains the urgency of the Stuxnet virus.

“How that’s done is there’s a real-time version of DepthKit running where we’re actually taking input from an Intel RealSense R200 camera that’s built with the DepthKit SDK and then piping a hologram of you into the actual experience so you see yourself sitting eye-to-eye with the informant, and that implies you in the virtual world,” said George. “And there’s been totally different reactions to that. Sometimes people freak out and  actually just pull the headset off, other times people just put their hands out. It could be gimmicky if it weren’t for the fact that it really drives home that even though this is an abstract space that you’re seeing, these viruses and virtual weapons actually have physical real-world consequences, so we want to make sure people feel it close to home.”

Even beyond the final reveal, Elayat was encouraged by the reactions to the project—which the team is now working to expand and develop further.

“Someone yesterday came in, and after he saw the piece he said, ‘It seems like you’re building a new type of genre here,’” said Elayat. “I think for me that’s the biggest compliment a studio like ours could get, especially because we have this hybrid approach to volumetric filmmaking which is game-engine based plus the visual fidelity of photography and in-3D capturing, so I think that for me was coolest and most awesome thing you could say about our project.”

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and the CEO of Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive storytelling. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on IndieWire and The Huffington Post.

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