Lucas Rizotto via YouTube

Meet the guy who built his own personal time machine

Throughout 2019, Lucas Rizotto filmed his entire life. Using a pair of glasses that record whatever the wearer is seeing in stereoscopic 3D, he filmed everything from hanging with friends to eating bagels in a tree to traveling around the world. At the end of the year, he put together all the footage he had amassed and, using a VR headset, he’s able to revisit any moment from the previous year of his life. Essentially, it’s his own personal time machine.

At first, he hadn’t intended to actually build a time machine from the recordings. He was on a gap year, and was just filming what he was doing for posterity. But “as I went down this rabbit hole [of recording], I started to get really excited about the footage I was seeing,” he tells Mic.

Then, as coronavirus hit globally in 2020 and he was stuck inside, he decided to do something with all that footage. “When I was telling people in passing about what I was doing, I was kind of using the description of a time machine to explain it to them,” he says. “And then in quarantine I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna make it literal.”

Assembling a functioning VR app, with a Back to the Future-style interface synched up with the many terabytes of footage he’d recorded, and turning the process into an engaging story for a YouTube documentary about the project, took months.

And then there were the surprising results.

Not only does he call it “way more immersive than I thought it would be,” he’s taken aback by how much of life he had forgotten, and how remembering it changed the way he viewed himself.

“Watching myself from a distance has given myself a new perspective,” he says in the video’s conclusion. “It has let me appreciate myself… Sure, [I] wasn’t perfect, but [I] was nice, thoughtful, and smart. And it took me building a time machine to see all of that. To see my own self worth.”

The project is the foundation of Lucas Builds the Future, a planned video series exploring “weird ideas” and “crazy tech.” He’s currently filming for the second episode.

“I tend to change careers every two to three years,” Rizotto says, which has led to a hugely varied background. “I’ve worked selling encyclopedias, building websites, throwing parties, I was a songwriter for a couple of years, I was a cartographer for a couple of years when I was a teenager, it just goes everywhere.” But Rizzotto values this flexibility. Not only is it useful with his projects — the time machine video combines “technology and storytelling and comedy and music” — but he also sees it as the key to growing into the future itself.

“If we could retain more of those [moments] we’d probably be way different and we’d look at the world differently." - Lucas Rizotto

“The world changes so quickly,” he says. “I think the people who are the most capable of really changing it right now are not the people who spend decades specializing in one field, but the people who can look at something new and learn how to play with it in a matter of like 2, 3 months and then start building stuff with it.”

That’s part of the goal as Lucas Builds the Future develops. But Rizzotto is also guided by focusing on the human impact of the technology he plays with. “I think the best way to understand where the future is headed is not by watching Black Mirror. It’s not by watching sci-fi movies. It’s by building a small microcosm… that lets you look at it and see — this is how it changes people.” He says that technology’s impact on society, the economy, and productivity are well explored, particularly in dystopian fiction. “But what I don’t think we cover nearly as much is the more human transformation aspects of it, of how it affects people at a deeper emotional level… And that’s where I come in because I get to be the human component in the test.”

That theory was confirmed by the reaction to his time machine video. He explains that he deliberately designed it to go viral (“it’s actually fairly simple”). The video racked up 155,000 views and a shorter, punchier version gained many more on Reddit and Twitter. But he didn’t expect the introspective conclusion to resonate with people as much as it did.

Rizotto wearing his camera glasses via YouTube

But having others relate to his expression of self-doubt hasn’t made it go away. “I talked in the video about the self-destructive spirals that you go into while making projects like this. A lot of it was played as a joke, but it’s very, very real.” He describes a sort of crisis of perfectionism that will likely be relatable for any creative. “I hate ‘good,’” he says. “It’s one of the most terrible feelings ever, because you’re like ‘I did something great before and now I’m trying to make this great but all it is is good.’”

It’s especially a problem as he thinks of future videos that are “designed to be controversial.” Unlike his time machine, a pretty neutral or positive application of virtual reality technology, he wants to showcase some areas where technology, including virtual and augmented reality, have “genuine issues.”

“It’s all going to be played as comedy but I am going to build some things that explore topics of propaganda and privacy, and projects that are designed to be terrible from the get-go,” he says. “But it’s, again, building a microcosm of the future, so people can recognize it and talk about it in the present.”

For now, though, his time machine has had a lasting positive effect on his life. His experiment taught him that what we mostly forget are “small and genuine and meaningful human moments we have day to day… little things that really give me more hope for humanity.”

Though he’s done less recording during lockdown, he’s still looking for moments to save for his future self. “For the next project that I’m building, it involves an [Internet of Things] sledgehammer with a bunch of Christmas lights. And I decided to add the Christmas lights yesterday, and I was really happy with how it looks… so I just recorded myself putting the Christmas lights on and me talking about what I was doing and I’m pretty sure in a few years I’m gonna appreciate that a lot. So I’m kind of setting myself up for little bits of future happiness.”

“If we could retain more of those [moments] we’d probably be way different and we’d look at the world differently. And whenever things would get really dark we would remember those interactions and not just all of the fire and darkness.”