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How the ‘Mr. Robot’ VR experience tells a tale that wouldn’t work on TV

A lot has changed over the course of a year for USA Network’s Emmy-nominated Mr. Robot TV series, which is airing its second season Wednesdays at 10pm EST. Christian Slater attended San Diego Comic Con last July solo, doing a handful of interviews. There was no panel or press room.

This year, after the show became a commercial and critical darling, there was a packed panel, an overcrowded press room, a recreation of the shop and apartment in San Diego’s Gaslamp District, and even white Mr. Robot repair vans through a partnership with Uber. Both the shop and the vans offered fans a first look at a 12-minute virtual reality experience directed by series creator Sam Esmail starring Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award and SAG Award nominee Rami Malek, who plays cyber-security engineer Elliot Anderson in the TV show.

“We can’t put any restrictions on VR storytelling yet. The kinds of stories we tell will evolve, as well as how we tell them.”

USA Network and Universal Cable Productions partnered with Chris Milk and Patrick Milling Smith’s Here Be Dragons virtual reality production company to take viewers further into Eliot’s troubled mind, and offer new information on his backstory.

“Sam had a clear vision for the experience from word one,” Milk told Digital Trends. “It was an exploration into one of the central relationships of the show — Elliot and Shayla. Fans of the show have a handle on how their relationship ended up, but we never really got to know how things started. The VR experience is all about Elliot trying to recount their first date.”

USA held a special press event at PetCo Park during Comic Con, where the cast was able to try the experience for the first time on specially-printed Mr. Robot Google Cardboards.

“The cast loved it,” Milk said. “This project, and the somewhat crazy release of it on Within, broke a lot of ground for us, and hopefully VR as well. One of my goals at Within is to make VR a more social experience, and getting all those fans together in a stadium to watch at the same moment, connecting with thousands of fans across the world, is a giant step towards that goal. It was also great to see the cast there and have them talk about experiencing the project, or even VR, for the first time.”

Now, the Mr. Robot VR Experience that wowed Comic Con fans is available for anyone to watch across the Within app, Facebook 360, YouTube 360 and New York Times VR.

Milk said this VR partnership was a long time coming. Milk and Esmail are old friends.

“I knew Sam before he was making television, and he knew me before I was making virtual reality,” Milk said. “The idea came about to do a Mr. Robot virtual reality project, so there was already a natural connection.”

Milk said the production team shot for two days in New York in Coney Island, and on the Mr. Robot set. Here Be Dragons used its own proprietary camera rigs, as well as the GoPro Odyssey/Google Jump camera system. As viewers of the series know, Elliot’s point of view can’t be trusted. That opened up an interesting new dynamic for 360-degree storytelling.

“VR is so powerfully subjective anyway, once you ascribe that power to an unreliable narrator, you get a story that beckons to be true and yet there’s an underlying mistrust,” Milk said. “That speaks to the power of Sam’s imagination, the world he created, and the characters he’s shaped. We all feel like we know Elliot just from spending season one by his side, and yet we hardly know him at all. Layers of his psyche seem to reveal themselves all the time, and I think Sam was going for something really beautiful and a bit subversive with the VR experience.”

Although Milk has been at the forefront of 360-degree storytelling, this 12-minute Mr. Robot VR Experience is his longest project to date.

“The length was right for the story, and for the context,” Milk said. “We can’t put any restrictions on VR storytelling yet. The kinds of stories we tell will evolve, as well as how we tell them, and the technology required to do so. […] Works will only get better when we step outside the box of what feels familiar and try new things. Prescribed length was not something we gave consideration to. Story was everything.”

Given the popularity of Mr. Robot, this VR experience could inspire people to check out what all the fuss is about. And it also lays the groundwork for more in-depth storytelling through 360-degree filmmaking. While Google Cardboard has introduced VR to millions of people around the globe, Milk believes Sony’s launch of PlayStation VR to its audience of 40 million PS4 owners will be a huge win for VR film-making.

“Cardboard was a game-changer because millions of people got access to their first taste of VR,” Milk said. “PS4 is poised to be a game-changer because millions more could have access to high-quality interactive VR. PlayStation is an expression of what we’ve felt for years now: VR is here to stay.”

John Gaudiosi
John Gaudiosi has been covering video games for over 25 years, dating back to his work for The Washington Post while in…
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