Project Elysium is a virtual reality project to bring people back from the dead

Virtual reality won't bring the dead back to life, but it can be a way to remember.

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May 5 2015, 9:00am

Image: Paranormal Games

New technology has a nasty habit of making promises it can't keep, but nothing should make your bullshit alarms ring louder than a hack for the cruelest, most basic rule of life: We're all going to die, and once we die we're dead for good.

Project Elysium, by contrast, is being billed as "a personalized VR Afterlife experience reuniting people with loved ones who have passed." In other words, it will make a 3D model of your dead relatives or friends, and put you in the same virtual environment with them using a Gear VR.

Project Elysium is one of 1,700 submissions vying for a $1 million prize from Mobile VR Jam 2015, a contest sponsored by Oculus VR, makers of the Oculus Rift headset. The contest also offers a chance to impress Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and chief technology officer John Carmack, among other judges.

It's not surprising that Project Elysium is the entry that's received the most attention so far, at least from the media. Its creators, Paranormal Games' co-founders Steve Koutsouliotas and Nick Stavrou, promise to work with clients to create 3D models of their deceased loved ones in a custom-made virtual environment.

The headlines you could weave out of that pitch are hard to resist, but ultimately misrepresentative of what virtual reality can achieve. Jacquelyn Morie has 25 years of experience developing virtual reality, most recently at All These Worlds, a company she founded to create virtual worlds for clients like NASA and the US Army. She told me the headlines suggesting VR can bring people back from the dead had her shaking her head.

Colourblind Films is currently shooting a documentary about Project Elysium.

"These guys doing Project Elysium, I don't think they've really done their homework," Morie said. She's written extensively about a similar concept, the "ultimate selfie," a way to digitally record human identity that can outlive the original. "I'd love to work on something like that, I proposed something to DARPA as a 30-year project, so God bless these kids for thinking they can do it in six months, but it's naive."

Even Koutsouliotas and Stavrou had a more measured explanation for what they hope to achieve when I talked to them.

"Think of it like talking to a photo, or going somewhere that makes you think about that person," Stavrou said. "I go to the cemetery a lot and see my dad's gravesite. It's a one way conversation. We're just taking that one way conversation and putting it in virtual reality."

The third leg of the business is traditional celebrity necrophilia

I agree with Morie that Koutsouliotas and Stavrou are a little naive, perhaps intentionally, but I also believe them when they say that Project Elysium grew out of genuine, personal struggle with grief.

Koutsouliotas lost his father to a stroke in 2009. Stavrou lost his father to an aneurism two years ago. Their fathers were close friends, which is how Koutsouliotas and Stavrou know each other since they were kids. Both their fathers died unexpectedly.

"I was just visiting relatives and missing my father," Koutsouliotas said. "I was driving home and I thought, 'why can't I just create my father and spend time with him and have this second chance, in a way?'"

The experience they're trying to build by Mobile VR Jam 2015's deadline of May 11 will put users in a spectator's seat, watching Stavrou have a short interaction with his father. Koutsouliotas, who has game design background and is handling the technical side of things, is building Stavrou's 3D model using a technique called photogrammetry. He'll take photos of Stavrou and stitch them together to create the 3D model and its textures. Obviously, the same technique won't work for Stavrou's father. Koutsouliotas will have to put him together like a digital age Dr. Frankenstein, using old photos and other materials.

"Some parts you take from other people's faces," Koutsouliotas said. "At the end of the day we all have skin, but you definitely base it off the references, and other stuff you just have to make it yourself."

The Mobile VR Jam prototype is meant to give users an idea of what Paranormal Games wants to spin into a real business. Potential clients will provide reference materials Paranormal Games can use to create digital versions of their deceased loved ones, and build a custom experience.

A storyboard for the Project Elysium prototype. Image: Paranormal Games

The deceased's avatar will have minimal variability in its behavior (it will be able to maintain eye contact, for example), but overall Paranormal was clear that for now the goal is to create something predictable and heavily scripted. Maybe you'd ask to sit next to your grandfather on a bench in his favorite park, and he probably won't say anything because you don't have a recording of him saying what you want to hear.

However, other clients with enough foresight will be able to make better use of the technology.

"Ideally, the other kind of business model we want to do would be to pre-scan yourself in the event that you passed away," Koutsouliotas said. "This would be passed on to your next-of-kin or your children or your whomever so they could have this experience. You basically pre-order it."

The third leg of the business is traditional celebrity necrophilia, only in VR, with clients paying to hang out with dead famous people like Marilyn Monroe.

"We would make a mass market experience where you'd be in a movie scene, she's there and everyone else in that movie recreated in that street scene where her dress blows up and you can go in there and interact with her and talk to her," Koutsouliotas said.

Project Elysium isn't doing anything modern video games don't already do. In fact, big budget video games are already doing it way better, with state of the art motion capture and hardware that allowed developer Sledgehammer Games to put Kevin Spacey into Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and even that wasn't entirely convincing. Paranormal Games, by comparison, only has one technically proficient developer, none of the fancy hardware, and the limited power of the Samsung Note 4 smartphone, which all VR Jam entries have to run on to be eligible.

Nick Stavrou's 3D model inside Project Elysium. Image: Paranormal Games

The only advantage is that Project Elysium will design experiences by request, and that it has the aura of virtual reality, which promises everything from medical breakthroughs to virtual travel, but in practice does little more than let you look around a digital image instead of looking at it on a screen.

Koutsouliotas and Stavrou know that they're in dangerous territory. So-called psychic mediums like John Edward have made fortunes exploiting grieving people by convincing them they can communicate with the dead. Project Elysium's Mobile VR Jam pitch is skirting the same con with a technological solutionism angle, but privately, Koutsouliotas and Stavrou have discussed some strategies to protect clients.

They said potential clients will get a very clear picture of the type and quality of experiences Paranormal Games is able to produce at any given moment before they pay. They're discussing a waiting period, and they probably won't produce an experience for a client if it's been less than six months since their loved one passed away. Clients will need to be next-of-kin, get permission from next-of-kin, or have power of attorney. They hope clients will work with grief counselors in creating these experiences.

"It's like if you had your parents or someone you love portrayed as a statue and have that sitting in your house."

"We don't claim to be necromancers," Koutsouliotas said. "We don't claim to be able to bring back the dead or anything crazy like that. I find it hard to believe that people would draw those conclusions because obviously it's a piece of digital software. It's like if you had your parents or someone you love portrayed as a statue and have that sitting in your house, or did a painting of them."

That's a very sensible explanation, but a far cry from "a personalized VR Afterlife experience reuniting people with loved ones who have passed," which is still how Paranormal Games describes Project Elysium on its Mobile VR Jam page. It's a competition, and Koutsouliotas and Stavrou are clearly hoping for some kind of award. The attention they've been getting can help them stand out among the other 1,700 contestants, and the sensible explanation doesn't make for a very good headline.

"What sensational headlines like these do is create extremely unreasonable expectations for VR - the same thing that happened towards the end of the 1990s in VR's first popularization," Morie said. "When those promises don't pan out, then people are disappointed and things start to falter."

Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.