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I Lived Through a Robot Insurrection in Virtual Reality

“It’s not genocide. You’re not human.”

I was sitting in a big room; a massive, hangar-like industrial space. Light spilled in through the cracks in partially painted-over windows. I wasn't alone. A few feet away, a military interrogation was underway. I peered from behind a beam. Strapped to a chair was a robot, his mask of a face half-peeled away. He was accusing his interrogator of genocide. The latter's response, growled with contempt: "It's not genocide. You're not human."

I looked down at my own body. It wasn't there. Then I pulled the Oculus Rift off my head.

And found myself in a very different room. I wasn't crouching in a warehouse in a dystopian tomorrow populated by robot insurgents, but a production studio in Culver City, California. I was flanked by two flesh-and-blood human beings, David Karlak and Scott Metzger, the director and visual effects supervisor, respectively, of the virtual reality experience I'd just undergone. They looked at me expectantly.

"So what did you think?" Karlak asked.

What I'd just lived through was about a minute and a half of RISE, a science-fiction short film about a robot insurgency in the future—pitched to me as Battle of Algiers with robots. To be more accurate, it was a single frame of the film, painstakingly rendered as a virtual reality environment using thousands of HDR photos, LIDAR scan data, and 3D character scans. 

I'd seen the frozen frame from a dozen vantages as the film's dialogue unspooled. From behind, around, beneath the actors; from right in the robot's lap and from a wallflower spot on the edge of the room, where the textures of the concrete wall had been especially convincing.

Karlak and his cohorts are currently entering the final throes of a Kickstarter campaign for RISE, with which they were hoping to raise $20,000 to finish off the special effects for the short. Once that's completed, they plan to do something that no indie filmmakers have yet attempted: release a public build of this cinematic moment frozen in time, viewable by anyone with the Oculus Devkit 2. 

The idea is to allow viewers, once they've watched the film, and developed an interest in its characters, to visit its world in virtual space—and feel, in a more visceral manner than two-dimensional cinema might be able to convey, what it might be like to exist in that moment.

That moment, of course, is extremely brief. A high frame rate for convincing immersion into virtual reality is paramount; Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey argues that VR games need to be in the neighborhood of 60 frames per second, and RISE runs at an unprecedented 90 frames per second, or 90Hz. The effect is convincing. 

As Scott Metzger, the film's visual effects supervisor, showed me a two-dimensional rendering of the environment, he assured me that while the photography looked good on the monitor, once it's beheld in VR, "you get the really weird sense of immersion where it's like...Holy shit, am I inside of the Matrix?"

Despite the crazy resolution, the VR experience I had—and the build Oculus users will have access to, once the film is released—only depicts a single "frame" of the action, albeit a navigable one, mapped one-to-one with my own perception of myself in space.

Which is to say, it represents just a fragment of VR cinema's potential. To create a feature-length version of this experience, Karlak emphasizes, is like "staring at Mount Rushmore." The technical considerations are grand, as are the creative logistics: how do you edit for virtual reality? How do you storyboard when there are no limitations to the audience's field of vision? How to create stories fit for the medium?

It feels relatively natural for a science fiction film to employ new technology as its medium. 

"A lot of the technology that we're developing in the VR world is as science fiction as the movie itself," Karlak says. 

If I am to accept the conceit that robots are an oppressed minority, primed for revolution against a hostile world, it's not much of a leap to accept that I must don a virtual-reality headset to visit this movie. We're in a unique position now: the future seems to be unspooling fast enough for us to grab the loose end and feed it right into our dreams. 

Karlak has another dream, beyond finishing RISE and translating the short into a feature film: And that's to traffic in this virtual reality stuff itself. The freeze-frame I "experienced" on Oculus yesterday was initially produced because Karlak's team found itself with very high-quality digital film assets left over from the process of creating RISE's visual effects. In deciding to repurpose this cinematic world for VR, they realized that they could theoretically allow audiences—for all kinds of media projects, not just their own—to experience films in new ways.

And so there's a tech startup in the mix, too, called Nurulize, of which Karlak is creative director. Nurulize aims to explore the confluence between VR and cinema, starting with RISE. 

"It's very hard to determine what the future of VR is even going to look like," says Karlak, "so we're just kids in a sandbox, seeing what we can do."

So what did I think? I think we're in a transitional moment in cinema. The notion of peeling back the plane of the movie screen to reveal a multidimensional, navigable space is extremely seductive to filmmakers—and to anyone interested in telling stories. Art can be said to have succeeded when it manages to transcend the limitations of its medium and become an immersive world of its own. A good story, for what it's worth, can do this even when constrained to ink printed on mashed wood pulp.

Virtual reality, however, explains Karlak, shortcuts straight there, allowing "a filmmaker to take their audience and do what every filmmaker wants, which is transport them 100 percent within that cinematic world."

He adds, "It's stuff of dreams."