Notes on Blindness is one of the first great virtual reality experiences
There’s a thunderclap and a blue streak cuts across a field. It only lasts for a split second, but the light lingers as I sit in the middle of a warehouse in Shadwell, staring at nothing.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is a VR project, based on the audio diaries of theologian John Hull, who documented the experience of losing his sight. It’s a measured, meditative piece, encouraging contemplation at a time when companies are dribbling at the chance to show off the hardware’s bells and whistles.
Following an Emmy Award-winning short film on the subject, writers and directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney turned Hull’s diaries into a feature film, which premiered at 2016’s Sundance Film Festival. The VR project is an offshoot of that film, made in collaboration with producer Arnaud Colinart and audio designer Amaury La Burthe. I got a chance to experience it at the Kaleidoscope VR showcase in east London.
The VR work is made up of four chapters, each of which places the viewer in a fixed location and offers them the chance to turn backwards and forwards as they please. We start in a park, with trees built up of electric blue dots. As we listen to Hull’s thoughts, the sounds of newspapers rustling and passing joggers move like ghosts around us. Later we are in a cabin, with our surroundings revealed as the wind blows against swings, or as raindrops fall through the roof on to crockery.
Sound is the driving power in these scenes. Binaural sound design has been used to give a sense of aural depth to the scenes, with Hull’s contemplations layered on top. A storm breaks over the cabin, rain falls and the surrounding field is lit in blue. Hull tells us that, for a person with sight, the sky is a constant ceiling. For the blind there is no roof above their head, and only when there is a storm does the idea of an upper limit take shape. It is an affecting moment, and one that plays to the sensory immersion, and restriction, offered by virtual reality.
Part of the reason
Part of the reasonNotes on Blindness works so well is because the VR headwear feels like a gag over your eyes and ears. During my time with the film I felt conscious of the world outside but was unable to see it, and this disparity between the space occupied by my body, and that occupied by my sight and sound, perfectly fits the subject matter. While the animations, music and voice-acting are a joy to experience, it’s ultimately the directors’ use of blackness and silence that throws the moments of light and noise into relief.
Claiming to offer a VR experience of blindness is a difficult line to walk, with the risk that the emphasis on immersion will be read as a shallow, fetishistic turning of a disability into what many will perceive to be entertainment. With a focus on Hull’s records, and a meaningful progression in theme through the four chapters, Notes on Blindness handles the subject matter with both sensitivity and intelligence. It’s an absorbing look at one man’s journey away from the visual world, and one of the best arguments yet for virtual reality as a serious filmmaking medium.