One of the most notable films that premiered at this summer’s Sundance Film Festival was Notes on Blindness. The film is about theologian John Hull who chronicled his degenerative blindness over the course of 16 years until he completely lost his sight in 1983. Released along with the film was Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, an immersive VR experience created by Agat Films/Ex Nihilo and Audiogaming.
The VR project, funded by ARTE, allows viewers to experience the process of going blind alongside Hull as they relive memories and locations from Hull’s audio diary. The film uses sounds to generate visual cues that give the viewers the feeling that their senses are heightening as their eyes dim.
The project, which took two and a half years to develop for other platforms, has since won the Storyscapes Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Alternate Realities VR Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest. During a panel at MIPCOM, Arnaud Colinart, new media lead at Agat/Ex Nihilo, and Amaury La Burthe, CEO of Audiogaming, explained how the experience was developed and what aspects they borrowed from the gaming world.
“We started from the audio material and the story John wanted to tell,” said La Burthe. “We isolated several moments in the tapes…and tried to elaborate interactive situations.” La Burthe went on to describe the hardest element of the project, which was the loss of visuals. “We realized that by doing something that was only audio-based, we were losing a lot of people. We were losing the sighted audience.” This prompted them to create the visuals that can only be “seen” when sound is featured in the transcripts.
The gaming aspect of the experience comes in in the form of a gaming principle called Flow Theory. The theory basically states that a game can’t be too simple, making it boring, or too complex, which can induce anxiety in some users. This helped take care of the fact that, in a VR experience, timing is all determined by the user. While some prefer to rush through an experience, others idle through it, making the narrative difficult to control. “Depending on how much you look around, the story’s going to be slower,” said La Burthe. “If you look around a low, we’re going to trigger a few additional things.”
For Colinart and La Burthe, the project was a compelling lesson in empathy and compassion not only for themselves but for others as well. The Notes on Blindness VR experience is available on the Samsung Gear, and on iOS and Android for mobile or Cardboard. You can also check out a short film, Radio H., based on John Hull’s daughter, Imogen Hull, and her own audio diary that she created as a child: