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Can Virtual Reality Help Us Understand Blindness?

The unusual new documentary ‘Notes on Blindness’ has an even more unusual virtual reality companion piece

Archer’s Mark
Archer’s Mark

At Jump Into the Light, a “virtual reality theater and playlab” within a ramshackle Bowery storefront in New York, people sit with rapt and slightly dopey expressions, enthralled by whatever’s on the headsets strapped over their eyes. I joined them last week and slipped on a Samsung Gear headset to experience Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, an interactive virtual reality experience.

John Hull, a theologian who went blind in adulthood, is the subject of the Into Darkness VR experience and its companion documentary film, Notes on Blindness. Hull, who moved from Australia to the U.K. in 1959, went blind at age 45 and wrote Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness about what he went through; the late famed neurologist Oliver Sacks called the book a “masterpiece.” The film debuts in the United States on Wednesday in select theaters, and people can try the VR experience at Jump Into the Light or via their own VR headsets.

“Can we have insight into other people? This is the great question upon which the unity of our humanity hangs,” Hull wrote. This is the question that Notes on Blindness considers.

Hull was not the only blind man who wanted the seeing world to know what it’s like to be blind. In 1999, a blind clergyman named Jorge Spielmann opened a restaurant in Zurich in a converted Methodist church. The restaurant, called Blindekuh (which is German for “blind cow” and also a reference to a game called blind man’s bluff) is a “dark restaurant,” which means its patrons eat in total absence of light and are guided to their seats by waiters who are blind or visually impaired. Removing one sense to heighten the others is an appealing idea, and the reward for maneuvering a fork into your mouth in darkness is a newly rich sensory abundance for your taste buds. There’s now Dans Le Noir in Manhattan, the Dark Dinner in Tokyo, and similar concept venues elsewhere around the world. While those restaurants provide job opportunities for blind people, they are focused on conveying blindness in a literal sense.

Experiencing blindness this way — by taking away vision and focusing on taste — makes sense. So the idea of conferring a deeper understanding of blindness through a visual presentation may sound counterintuitive, like writing an opera about the deaf experience. Could I really gain insight about blindness from Notes on Blindness any more than I would from snacking at Dans Le Noir or gluing my eyelids closed for a day? Also, how effective could it be if the very people I was supposed to learn about couldn’t experience it? The documentary is available in “described audio” and “enhanced soundtrack” versions better suited for the blind or partially sighted, but the VR experience is designed for those with sight. I worried that the VR would turn the experience of being blind into a novelty, a sort of “disability tourism.”

Both the documentary and VR experience use Hull’s words and audio recordings from his diary as jumping-off points to explain the psychological effects of blindness. Both parts of the project emphasize the multisensory experience of losing sight. Instead of showing me a black screen, the VR showed how blind people locate objects by listening to the sound they make when wind hits them, and the most poignant scene of the documentary is a celebration of the experience of hearing and feeling rain. Taken together, the pieces do not ask viewers to pity Hull or blind people, but insist that their humanity be recognized. My concerns were unfounded — both the VR and the documentary are meditations of one man’s reckoning with loss and discovery of a new mode of being a person. This project is not a pedantic simulacrum; rather it’s impressionistic and a little wistful. It’s experimental art.

Into Darkness is not the only VR experience designed to stir affinity for the marginalized and afflicted. In 2015, a VR film called Clouds Over Sidra showed viewers a 12-year-old’s experience in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. My Mother’s Wing told the story of a family in Gaza, and Waves of Grace documented the struggles of an Ebola survivor working at a Liberian orphanage. These films, collaborations with the United Nations, are part of a larger push within the organization to use virtual reality to convince people to care about what’s happening in the world. There is some evidence that this is working. “Unicef found showing ‘Clouds’ — which, like ‘My Mother’s Wing,’ was produced with Chris Milk’s Vrse.works — doubled the number of people willing to donate to help Syrian refugees,” Wired wrote. Amnesty International U.K. attributed its use of VR headsets to a 16 percent increase in getting people to sign up for donations for its “virtual reality Aleppo” campaign. A Stanford University study from 2013 found that people were more likely to assist others with color blindness after they’d spent time in a virtual reality simulation of what it is like to be color-blind. Filmmaker Milk went so far as to call VR an “empathy machine” in a TED Talk.

But using a VR headset is still a novelty for most people, and so the sheer newness of the medium may be contributing more to its perceived fundraising effectiveness than anything else; like the “dark restaurants” of Zurich and New York, it has a worrisome faddishness. Is the food really good? Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is conducting a long-term study, but the truth is, we don’t know whether there’s anything inherent to the medium that makes it an effective tool for emotional propaganda — or whether, as with other artistic mediums, it will simply come down to the storytelling.

Virtual reality appealed to filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney because of what they see as its unique properties. Into Darkness was originally conceived as audio-only, but the duo believe that virtual reality helps them convey Hull’s experience more fully.

“A lot of the passages in John’s diary talk about the awakening of an acoustic space, how he received a sense of awakening through sound,” Spinney told me over the phone. “This felt like a really interesting concept to explore in virtual reality, and something that is better suited to a virtual reality medium than to cinema.”

“There are qualities that are specific to virtual reality that film can’t access; VR has a better ability of mimicking the sensory experiences of moving throughout the world,” Spinney said. “Virtual reality has something that no other medium or art form can touch. After you take off the headset after 20 minutes, you really feel yourself coming back into the room and coming back to your conscious experience.”

“Cognition is beautiful,” Hull wrote, and Into Darkness succeeds because it conveys the vivid interior life of a blind man as proof of full humanity. Whether or not VR is better than any other way of showing us the unfamiliar, the way it is used by Notes on Blindness works; the project works. It makes Hull’s life feel known.