Notes on Notes on Blindness: the VR Experience

NOTES ON BLINDNESS: INTO DARKNESS is a VR experience written and directed by James Spinney and Peter Middleton

On Thursday afternoon I got to switch off from the world for a short time and immerse myself in a VR story. And what a treat it was.

Notes On Blindness is a documentary film coming out in the UK this week (at Sheffield Docfest) that has a companion VR piece subtitled “Into Darkness”. And it’s pretty special.

Virtual Reality, ironically, might not immediately seem the ideal way to be immersed in a story about what it feels like to be blind, but there’s a lot to recommend here. For example: when you don your VR headset, you are still in the room you’re in, but you can’t see it any more. There is a real sense of vulnerability as you get used to your new inability to visually engage with what is happening around you.

Sound is crucially important once you’re inside a VR experience. It’s not just about what you see, but about a feeling of immersion and experience, and that involves your ears as well as your eyes.

Which is not to say that VR is remotely like being blind.

Painstakingly recreating Hull’s life during the 1980s, NOTES ON BLINDESS re-imagines and re-creates the realities of his deteriorating condition as well as his ephemeral and abstract feelings about his life

But it is an ideal medium for telling this story about a man, John Hull, who went blind and who kept an audio diary about what it was like to lose his sight and live in the world as a blind person.

The VR story is broken up into 12 chapters, only 4 of which were available to experience (watch? what is the verb we need for this?) at Cross Video Days, which is where I experienced it. Those chapters, each only a few minutes long, are about what it’s like to be blind, the wind, cognition, and a choir.

The quality of John Hull’s observations and ability to articulate his experiences are at the heart of what makes this a compelling experience. Such a thoughtful, deliberately attentive intelligence is fascinating to listen to. In the opening chapter, he tells you all the things he can hear. And the binaural sound, combined with a minimalist animation of blue outlines and suggestions of shapes, helps you to imagine his situation. But mostly it is his powerful, clear words.

The second chapter is about wind and how it affects you when you are blind. I swear I felt wind on my skin as I was experiencing this with my goggles on inside. Of course, somebody probably opened a door of the room I was in. Or perhaps the experience heightened my perception of the air against my skin. Either way, it was an extraordinary and slightly perturbing experience.

The best of the 4 chapters I experienced was the one called Cognition. Not the most thrilling title, but it is really a beautiful piece of work. It’s sort of about rain and about rooms and about how rain and weather create perceptible spaces for you when you are blind. He explains how when rain falls, it gives you a way to perceive all the things around you. He wishes it could rain indoors, so that he might have that sense of space inside his home. The animation shows you this too, by using animated raindrops to make shapes appear in the “room” around you.

There is an interactive element here. I had mixed feelings about that. I am pretty experienced in world of using a VR headset, I know what I’m doing. But I didn’t find all the objects straight away. And really I just wanted to hear more of John Hull’s voice explaining his insights on cognition to me and I didn’t want to have to locate a frying pan or any other kind of kitchen implement to be able to do so.

That is no criticism of the idea to attempt a type of interactivity in the piece and the attempt is nicely executed and in keeping with the piece. It’s not heavy handed and is well-judged. It just didn’t entirely work for me, and made me wonder (again) whether we are ready for much interactivity within VR storytelling. And whether we need it.

Each interactive scene addresses a memory, a moment and a specific location from John’s audio diary, using binaural audio and real time 3D animations

The final chapter I watched is called The Choir. It’s about the joy John Hull experienced hearing a choir singing. This story is all in the audio of the choir and in his explanation of what it meant to him to hear such beautiful sounds. Having experienced the previous three chapters, this is a lovely way to finish the piece. In theory you can choose to experience the chapters in any order, but it would be a real shame to have clicked on this one first. You need to have immersed yourself in the world of this man who can no longer see to understand why the music is so important.

Editor’s note: NOTES ON BLINDNESS will be touring in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from June 24 and will be available for download for Samsung Gear on June 30. The trailer is below.

As of 1 August 2016: Available online as free download via Oculus.


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