A StoryCode Review by Michael Epstein.
My father had a dictaphone he’d use to compose business correspondence. He’d speak in monotone sentences—including punctuation—then pass these mini-cassettes to his secretary, who, using a foot-pedal-controlled playback device, would type them up. Seems such a quaint, Mad-Man-esque tech story. But this old technology—the cassette tape—is the foundation of one of the most stunning VR pieces to emerge in this breakthrough year for the medium.
“Notes on Blindness” is a film plus VR extension that chronicles Prof. John Hull’s slow loss of his vision as recorded into cassette tapes over a decade. The feature length documentary component of the project is spellbinding in how it literally puts you in Hull’s shoes to experience going blind. But visually, the film backs off in portraying what Hull saw. This is where the VR experience comes in.
Available on MilkVR and in the app stores starting June 30, 2016, the VR experience presents audiences with a series of environments which show how the blind “see”. Each of these environments unfolds with the click of a cassette recorder and then John Hull’s measured, searching voice begins to pinpoint what he’s experiencing. In the first section he’s observing his children playing in a park: a pitch black landscape faintly outlined in wavering points of blue light, leaps to life as the sounds of Hull’s daughter and her jump rope help Hull locate her and “see” what she’s doing. It’s both haunting and inspiring, as the audience begins to understand the techniques a blind person uses to visualize the world through auditory and memory input.
In the next section, the audience gets more agency, being able to turn one’s head to direct wind at the world and have trees appear where leaves rattle and branches creak. Then you create fanciful indoor raindrops to ping off the surfaces in Hull’s home and reveal the still life of objects around him. Finally, we figure out how to see a church service using the words of the priest and singing of a choir. All of these experiences are real, narrated by Hull in situ and letting us assume the technical challenge of figuring out what’s around you via rich, binaural audio input (sound effects beautifully layered in by Amaury La Burthe.) It should be noted that the majority of the project’s interactivity is mental: Beyond creating wind and raindrops with your gaze, there isn't much audiences can do with their environment, and this generates a bit of tedium to an otherwise engrossing experience.
However, one could say that “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness” is successful because it embraces (rather than pushes) the current limits of VR. Virtual Reality—at this stage at least—can become distracting (even nauseating) if there is too much action, too much to look at, too many surfaces to touch. By embodying a protagonist who is limited through a disability, the audience becomes more attentive to small details, to a world unfolding, and to the subtle emotions a blind theologian must experience in straining to experience mass, or see his children, or observe the natural world. What I call “deprivation narratives” are not new to VR. Whether it’s Milica Zec’s story of being trapped in a basement during an air raid or Nonny de la Peña’s “Use of Force” about witnessing police brutality from a distance, VR audiences are often cast as having some barrier to perception or action. These deprivation narratives, however, don’t transcend the deprivation in a meaningful way, as Hull’s story does. It becomes both a relief and surprise the myriad ways Hull is able to see through the darkness.
Overall, “Notes on Blindess: Into Darkness” is a marvel of VR. Extremely high production values mix with a fascinating protagonist to create a truly empathetic experience with someone whose shoes we want to be inside of. My only critique is that the project, having four parts, feels a bit long and repetitive by the time you get to the final section. That aside, I believe this project will inspire many creators to tell documentary VR stories which take advantage of the immersion and limitations of VR.
Story: (Was there a satisfying arc to the narrative?) 9
Interactivity: (Are audiences allowed to meaningfully interact with the environment and characters?) 7
UX/Comfort: (Were controls intuitive and motion graphics not nauseating?) 10
Wow Factor: (Was it innovative? Surprising?) 8
Production Quality: (Were the audio/visual elements stunning?) 10
VR for Cardboard and Oculus. 360 video for iOS and Android.
Made with Unity, the full VR experience will be released June 30, 2016 on MilkVR for Cardboard and Oculus. A 360° version will be available on all iOS and Android devices.
Experience designed by Arnaud Colinart, Amaury La Burthe, Peter Middleton & James Spinney Produced by AGAT Films Ex Nihilo, ARTE France & AudioGaming in co-production with Archer’s Mark.
Michael Epstein is a volunteer chapter head with StoryCode, an expanding movement to explore new storytelling techniques in the digital age. Every month, in chapters around the world, StoryCode sessions feature compelling authors, producers, and developers of new media stories.
He is the founder of Walking Cinema, an interactive studio specializing in participatory media production for the museum and broadcast industries. He is also a Senior Lecturer at the California College of art.
StoryCode Reviews is an attempt to contribute to a larger critical discussion of Immersive Media projects of note. This work (including interactive fiction/non-fiction, VR/AR, and other forms of experimental storytelling) is evolving every day. As the work matures, we think it's valuable to begin a critical conversation about it.