Designing for VR

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness

Here are some highlights about a project I worked on as an Art Director for 1 year: Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness. This project is an adaptation of the book Touching the Rock, the audio diary of John M. Hull discovering “a world beyond sight” published in 1990.

Notes on Blindness, directed by Peter Middleton & James Spinney, 2014

In 2014, John’s testimony was adapted by filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney in the beautiful short film Notes on Blindness.

In April 2015, Arnaud Colinard/AGAT Films & Cie proposed me to work on an immersive 360° version of this story with him and Amaury La Burthe/AudioGaming. The chapters of the experience were already defined, and some choices about the graphic universe were made, my challenge was then to bring it further and I quote “to make a beautiful project which can be exposed in museums like the MoMA” :o

Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space, Fabien Togman
The artwork by Fabien Togman I received when I began to work on the project.

To define a consistent methodology and approach for the immersive experience and develop it all along the scenes, I focused my work on few important issues:

1/ Point of view

How to define a point of view? What does it mean?

The first thing I done was to read the book of John M. Hull, to understand his experience and discover his daily environment. What struck me first was the contrast between the simplicity of his writing and the strength of his words. There were also tackled issues of a man living with his family and a man exploring the meaning of life: it was like John was at the same time inside and outside his own body.

A 360° subjective point of view, Béatrice Lartigue
The participant of the immersive experience embodies John Hull. He discovers the world from a subjective point of view.

In virtual reality, the world around the viewer is concentric; all vanishing points refer to the viewer’s position. And it’s even more true when your perceptions of this world bring it to life.

A 360° realistic point of view, Béatrice Lartigue
The field of view uses human vision characteristics to remain realistic, but the surrounding environment evolves constantly over time…

2/ Environment

What is the environment of the story?

John knows his daily environment (his study, his house…) but he feels his unknown surroundings to understand it. His senses and perceptions help him to figure out what the space looks like around him: the wind in his hair, the sun on is skin. The sound gives tangible form to his environnement. For example, John explains the fact that the perception of the space around him grows when it’s raining (the sound of a drop on a roof…).

Birmingham, UK, Béatrice Lartigue
The context of the experience reminds Birmingham, its parcs and university, where John Hull worked as an Emeritus Professor of Religious Education.

One of the first important thing was to imagine John’s daily environment, through the listening of his audio testimony. It was interesting to draw each scene of the experience, based on John’s audio descriptions: I had to imagine the space through his own perceptions and words.

Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space, Béatrice Lartigue
The challenge was to think about the space from a concentric point of view: by keeping it realistic but giving it some relief at the same time.

3/ Statement

How to translate a subjective world: ‘a world beyond sight’? How to unfold it through visual and interaction?

The point of view and the environment are voluntary realistic, but the visual translation of John’s world is more abstract. My first concern was to translate the idea of ‘an intermittent & fragmented world’.

References in Art and Game fields, Béatrice Lartigue
I made some research to explore this idea of light, transcendence and ‘acoustic world’.

I finally designed a world with a strong sensation of depth and the nature in motion.

Looking at the sky, Béatrice Lartigue
Ground, Béatrice Lartigue

The world is drawn with particles. The space is revealed by the wind, the rain or the vibrations of sound through space.

Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space, Béatrice Lartigue

4/ Narration through space

How to encourage the participant to explore the space around him?

The experience uses binaural audio, to develop a realistic and tangible 3D universe.

A sound generated universe, Béatrice Lartigue
The sound reveals the fragmented environment but it also creates some focus points in space.
Stairs, Béatrice Lartigue

One of the important point for me was to emphasize the density of the ground at John’s feet (he feels the ground then this one becomes tangible), besides it helps the viewer to understand the physicality of the space.

A feeling of depth, Béatrice Lartigue
By avoiding the feeling of floating in space, we reconnect the viewer and his environment together.
A fragmented and dreamlike world, Béatrice Lartigue

5/ Narration through time

How to retain the participant’s interest all along the experience?

Another important issue was to develop the curiosity of the participant all along the experience.

Storyboards, Béatrice Lartigue
The subtle evolution of the environment creates surprise and evokes the passage of time. It also may suggest that a moment of climax is coming.

The use of simple variations through time (like size or color) takes part in the feeling of a more organic world, less cold and perfect.

Notes on Blindness: The Choir, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Panic, Béatrice Lartigue

6/ Consistency

How to ensure consistency between the scenes?

By trying to respect all the points above and keeping technical aspects in mind… Once few codes are established it lets the viewer quickly understand the world around him, and freely interact with this world.

Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Feeling the Wind, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Rain, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Panic, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Dream, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: The Choir, Béatrice Lartigue
Notes on Blindness: Memories, Béatrice Lartigue
Sometimes, you have to break the rules you’ve designed to highlight a really specific moment.

The project

In 2016, the project won the Storyscapes Award at Tribeca Film Festival and the Alternate Realities VR Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, Trailer
Notes on Blindness: Film posters, Béatrice Lartigue
“Less space, more time.” Touching the Rock, John M. Hull

This article is dedicated to the memory of John M. Hull and his family.