What can virtual reality teach us about life with brain damage?

By Thomas McMullan

Jane Gauntlett sits opposite me in a restaurant close to Warren Street. This is strange, because the week before I was looking through Jane’s eyes, at another man, in another restaurant.

One of the standout experiences on show at the Sheffield Doc Fest’s Alternate Realities strand was In My Shoes: Dancing With Myself. It took part in a shop, arranged with round tables covered with white tablecloth. I was given a Samsung Gear VR headset and told to place my hands on the surface of the table. I did. And there I looked out across a restaurant, at a man approaching, then down at a pair of women’s hands.

“One of the most satisfying performances for me was this gang of kids came in – they must’ve been 17 or so,” Gauntlett tells me, “and they were effing and blinding. One of the performers got them to try it. They did and within a couple of minutes you could see them looking down at my hands, saying ‘effing hell, my nails are beautiful’.”

Dancing With Myself puts the viewer in Gauntlett’s place in the lead-up to and aftermath of an epileptic seizure during a lunch date. You hear her thoughts in your headphone, mixed with the sound of a scene that’s both subtle and affecting in its depiction of concern, panic and embarrassment. This is not an epileptic sim. The fit itself is not the focus, but rather the small looks of worry from other customers in the restaurant, the frustration of not being to finish a sentence when talking to your friend, the disconnect between your mind and your body.

Virtual, everyday reality

Gauntlett was violently mugged in 2007, and fell into a coma for three weeks. She suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the attack, and now lives with a neurological condition that encompasses short-term memory problems, as well as epileptic seizures.

Following the attack, Gauntlett worked extensively in theatre as a writer and producer. In 2011 she founded the In My Shoes project – something she describes as an, “ever-expanding library of interactive experiences”. The project’s first iteration, Waking in Slough, made use of audiovisual and early virtual-reality technology, as well as touch, taste and smell, to put audience members in Gauntlett’s position of waking up in Slough after a seizure, totally unsure of how she got there.

Since then, Gauntlett has worked with a number of subjects to create immersive experiences that aim to communicate the experience of living with conditions such as bipolar disorder, PTSD and brain damage from a stroke. The latest, and most technologically ambitious, of these is Dancing With Myself – a 360-degree film, made with the help of VR production company Visualise over the course of 12 days. “We wanted to make it work for us, because I’d seen so many VR pieces where I didn’t feel immersed,” says Gauntlett. “I really needed [the viewer] to see my body when they looked down. I really needed them to see it from my perspective.”jane_gauntlett

(Above: Jane Gauntlett)

A VR film that immerses you in the perspective of someone with brain damage, directed poorly, could easily end up crass and fetishistic. Dancing With Myself isn’t either of these things, in part because of the authenticity Gauntlett gives to the project, but also in part due to the deft emphasis on subtle scene building over spectacle.

“This is who I am. I’m quite like you. This could be you.”

“I think that’s a big problem with VR,” says Gauntlett. “People seem to think that for it to be a high-impact performance it has to be a really dark story – you have to be in a war zone, et cetera. Actually you can do it in a much more subtle way. That was the idea behind In My Shoes – this is who I am. I’m quite like you. This could be you.”

Like the excellent Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (based on the audio diaries of theologian John Hull, who documented the experience of losing his sight), Dancing With Myself places the viewer in an everyday setting, and makes the familiar seem unfamiliar by upending the relationship between your senses and your surroundings. Both take advantage of the interactivity afforded by VR, but also realise the power of limiting this interactivity – purposefully undermining it for dramatic effect.   

In Dancing With Myself, when you fail to relay a joke told to you by a friend moments before, the division between your mind and Gauntlett’s struggling voice is effective in its frustration. When the seizure starts, you can do little but sit and wait. “You’re looking through my eyes, but you don’t have any control over it,” she tells me. “You can’t stop the seizure.”

The E word

Empathy gets thrown around a great deal when talking about both virtual reality and immersive theatre. Gauntlett admits she is wary sometimes of talking about it – seeing as it tends to pop up during nearly every panel on the social and cultural benefits of VR. And yet empathy is at the heart of In My Shoes. The aim of the project is to spend a few moments inside the head of another person, to physically feel like you’re inside their body and therefore glean an understanding of their actions. This, Gauntlett explains, can break down barriers between herself and others, but it can also lead to a presumption of intimacy.

“It feels very strange,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like people think they know me better than they actually do. This is just one side of me – I’m lots of things. It gets annoying, people say Jane’s an epilepsy sufferer. I’m not. I live with epilepsy. I am a woman. And I’m all sorts of other things.”jane

“Part of me professed to know her – to really know her – but in truth I knew next to nothing about her.”

Having experienced Dancing With Myself, I can attest to a disorientating disconnect when speaking to Gauntlett. Part of me professed to know her – to really know her – but in truth I knew next to nothing about her. I haven’t seen the world through her eyes, and I never could, but I felt like I have. Is that empathy? Do I understand Gauntlett, or do I understand a version I’ve made up in my head?

She tells me that, after shows, audience members will frequently come to her and ask endless questions about her, then proceed to tell her all about themselves, as if they need to share who they are. I can understand the impulse.

Jane Gauntlett will be speaking about her work on 16 August, at the Edinburgh Digital Festival, and 7 September, as part of the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival.

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