Issue 2. Virtual Fictions. Storytelling in VR

Enter the mind of Philip K Dick in VR

By Fabien

Philip K Dick has been mixing realities for most of his carreer. It has been a shoehorn for movie screenwriters and today for VR creators. In I Philip, you enter the mind of a robot programmed to think like Philip K Dick. We talked about what’s real and what’s not and whether this all matters with the I Philip creators.

I welcome Pierre and Antoine, who are the producers and directors of I PHILIP, a VR fiction that just came out. It explores Philip K. Dick’s universe in a very original way. Let’s take a look at a short extract to get started.

So we saw some real-life footage as well as some animation, and both lead us to ask questions. We’ll speak for about 30 minutes of K. Dick’s universe and of VR – two subjects seemingly made for each other. To start, Pierre and Antoine, can you tell us what drove you when you started this project?

Pierre: Well the project really started five years ago, when we heard this incredible story about the head of a robot designed after K. Dick being stolen in an airport. At first we thought about doing a feature film, then a documentary, then a short film, but it never really took off. Until one day, we discovered VR thanks to some gamer friends. We thought it’d be a fantastic tool to make movies, and the idea came back on the table. We thought it’d be amazing to see through the eyes of the robot, because in many movies it’s hard to have empathy for an android, so we decided to step into its shoes.

Can you tell us a bit more about that robot?

Pierre: Dick died in the early 80s. He was a sci-fi writer who wrote a lot of genre defining novels, many of them inspiring movies, such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, or A Scanner Darkly. Fast forward 23 years, two American engineers working on artificial intelligence, both K. Dick fans, decided as an homage that the first robot with a human face they would design would have K. Dick’s face. They thought a human face would inspire empathy. They had both worked for Disney, in fact one of them, David Hanson, used to design the character’s faces with plastic before 3D animation rose. So they created that robot, but they didn’t have enough fund to make the whole body, so they only made the head. It became an internet phenomenon: a sci-fi author who wrote about androids becoming one himself… People thought it was awesome.

We should add that this robot was pretty incredible: he actually answered as K. Dick would. It didn’t feel like he was programmed, which I think was the inspiration for you guys to turn this into a VR experience.

 

Pierre: Yes, the goal was both to feel empathy for a robot, but also to really feel as if you were in his place. As the film progresses, you feel sometimes like you’re a circus freak, sometimes like you’re human. But at some point, you just feel like a thing, because you’re abandoned. The idea really was to shift between these feeling of being or not being, to be or not to be.

It shifts between reality and fiction. I feel like we’re constantly jumping from one to the other as the film goes on, and at some point we don’t really know where we are anymore.

Pierre: Well robots and AI are both very Dickian subjects, but VR is also a theme that K. Dick approached, most notably in Total Recall. We don’t really know if we’re in a programmed dream or if we’re living someone else’s life anymore. So it clearly was obvious for us to use that medium to tell this story. The stars aligned, so to speak, and since this subject was aimed at the people who are fans of K. Dick, it would have made no sense not to use VR.

For those not familiar with K. Dick’s universe, can we say he has a particular message about VR?

Pierre: A few years before he died, he was at a conference in Metz, were he essentially pitched The Matrix. He thought that there may be other worlds, other realities. He often had doubts about the reality. I wouldn’t say I know his message, in any case we weren’t trying to spread his message with this film. We really made this story our own, we fictionalized it. We even decided to distance ourselves from K. Dick a little bit, so as not to become blocked on a narrative level. So we changed a few things here and there, especially since we had to contain ourselves to a rather short format. We really tried to do something that would stand on its own, both narratively and technically.

To be fair, the question about K. Dick’s message was a trick one, because honestly if he has one I didn’t get it, but your project is fascinating because he asks the right questions. When you said he essentially pitched The Matrix, it’s the idea that we’re all somewhat programmed, or that or environment is. That might be very sci-fi, but it does question our own perception: do our senses deceive us? And that’s a broader question that has nothing to do with sci-fi. When you listen to his interviews and read his books it feels like that’s what he was interested in as well.

I want to discuss the film’s concept as well, which is to become an AI. How did you write that? How do you imagine becoming something that has been programmed?

Pierre: What interested most in that regard was the idea of memory. These memories of a human being programmed into a robot’s head, that lead the robot to question – and this is similar to Total Recall – which memories are his and which belong to someone else. In the end, the robot is really asking: Am I Philip K. Dick, or a copy of him? Or someone else entirely?

How does its environment react? I mean, how do the non-robots react to it?

Pierre: In real life people were really baffled by it. It does have a worrying weirdness to it, to have a robot that looks so similar to a human. So people were baffled but also amused. In the film we took that further, which made it a bit more threatening, because he comes in conflict with his creator, with journalists… The idea is that at first the robot finds it fun, being in the spotlight, but as it goes on he’d like to have more control. He’d like to move around, but he doesn’t have a body. He has no control about the questions he’s asked. Everyone’s making decisions for him, but he’d like to chose for himself.

That’s what interesting with VR. Everything we’re talking about is hard to imagine without having seen I PHILIP. Like, what are these guys on about, becoming a robot. But once you’ve actually experienced it, it’s clear as day, like something you actually lived. Do you think VR can intensify these experiences, take preposterous ideas and make them more credible?

Pierre: When we first started making cinematographic experiences with VR, it didn’t really feel like we were watching a movie, but rather that we were spending time with the people in it. It really is a personal experience, as you watch it alone. Plus, you can move your head around, look in all directions, which means nobody ever really sees the same film. That’s why with VR, we don’t really say that we watched a movie, but rather that we spent time in another world.

Antoine: There’s another element here, that not just theoretical but physical: VR stimulates parts of the brain that are not affected by other forms of entertainment. When we watch a movie, read a book, or listen to music, its our cortex that’s stimulated – and its been the case for centuries. But VR go further, because it can stimulate the limbic system, which is normally affected only by very powerful sensations, such as vertigo, passion, or fear. If this new form of entertainment can affect our limbic system, we’re obviously going to feel things differently. That’s why today there are a lot of researchers and doctors that look into VR, for example as a possible treatment for alzheimer. They never tried that with music or cinema, simply because there isn’t the same implications for the spectator. We don’t react the same way when we watch a movie or a VR experience.

In I PHILIP’s case, what’s interesting is that it suggests an alternative state of being. It shows us that the idea of giving a soul to these androids was not something completely insane.

Antoine: I feel like a lot of movies are asking that question. Its a common enough sci-fi theme, the humanity of robots. But it’s traditionally told from a human perspective: the protagonist judges the robot who’s starting to feel and think for itself. Ex Machina did a fantastic job in that regard. We were lucky it was K. Dick’s, but it really could have been any robotic head stolen in that airport: we probably would have still done the film. The core idea is that this robot is going to start having feelings, so let’s step into its shoes. This could allow us to be a little less suspicious, a little less obscurantist, when it comes to the humanization of robotics.