“It’s more of a map than a movie” — The Atlantic

2015 | 3D browser-based documentary, live performance, print series


Long before the world shut down for a pandemic and anyone who could retreated into their homes and online, at HIGHRISE we were exploring the complex intersections between vertical living and digital lives, with our prescient documentary, UNIVERSE WITHIN. From intimate whispers on Skype, to explosive political uses of WhatsApp in neighbourhoods under siege, Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise takes viewers inside the hearts, minds, and computers of vertical citizens around the world — from Guangzhou to Mumbai to New York and beyond.

As cities reach for the sky, the highrise building becomes a metaphor for the urban planet. Trapped in our apartments, how do we engage with our loved ones over the web? How has it rewired our brains and our relationships?

This unique collaboration between documentary makers, highrise residents, academics, creative technologists, and theatre artists challenges conventional documentary storytelling through its blending of fictional elements and innovative use of technology. The experience mimics personal and intimate “documentary conversations” between the viewer and host avatars, who are scripted and filmed in haunting 3D point cloud data.

Each host asks viewers provocative questions about the roles of ethics, emotions, and empathy. Their answers take them to stories around the globe: To the West Bank, where Safa, a mother living in a highrise in Ramallah, has only Skype, phone and email to stay connected with her family in Gaza, from whom she has been separated throughout most of her life by checkpoints and walls, though they only live a few miles away. To South Korea, where the teenaged boys who make up “Incredible Miracle,” a team of world-champion competitive video gamers, live, work, and train together in a highrise compound in central Seoul. To Mumbai, where 18-year-old Deepti puts herself at risk to record audio at meetings with corrupt government officials, in the hopes of saving her suburban apartment building from illegal demolition. And to Toronto, where two young refugees from Iraq living in a suburban highrise community join a “Girls Learning Code” program to learn how to build video games, something their parents couldn’t have imagined for them only a few months earlier.

As in a real-life conversation, not everything is revealed right from the beginning. The way in which the experience unfolds mirrors the way a conversation unfolds: you can’t know the full extent of what someone might share with you. The complete Universe Within experience consists of 70 minutes’ worth of stories, but it’s broken into distinct 15-minute-long units. At the end of each section, we are prompted to begin another one, , to hear and see different stories. If the viewer chooses the same host, the conversation evolves; more aspects of the host avatar’s own story are revealed.

Universe Within, produced by the National Film Board of Canada with Senior Producer Gerry Flahive, launched as a live performance at Hot Docs Film Festival, with a live host avatar, Misha Glouberman, along with a three-piece music band, led by composer Dafydd Hughes. The documentary was also paired with a series of articles published at the Atlantic City Lab.

Universe Within was one of the first documentaries in the world to be built with DepthKit, and it was placed in browsers using WebGL and P5.js (open-source technology). Due to shifts in technology, the documentary is not currently accessible. Below are videos that illustrate what it looked like and how it worked.


Trailer for Universe Within: Digital Lives in the Global Highrise (30 s).

Walkthrough for Universe Within (3m 39 s).

Director’s Statement for Universe Within (1m 12s).

Learn about the digital tools and process used to create Universe Within, and meet the Secret Location team, who co-created the digital interface and look. (3 m 59 s)

Musical documentary element from Universe Within. Working with composer Dafydd Huges, we incorporated documentary subjects’ verbatim quotations into a theme song performed by our avatars. Watch it in the setting, as well as the way it was captured using DepthKit.

Watch a full line of stories from one avatar in Universe Within. (16m 15s)


“Digitally Assisted Prayer” from Universe Within (3m 05s).

“LGBTQ+ mock marriages in China” from Universe Within (3m 05s).

“Need Internet 24-7” from Universe Within (2m 04s).

“Trapped in My Body” from Universe Within (3m 56s).

“Professional Gamers in Seoul” from Universe Within (3m 12s).