Specular

A virtual-reality experience called “Blackout” will give you the power to eavesdrop on the innermost thoughts of fellow subway passengers.

It’s a familiar sight for commuters anywhere: a train packed with people, their heads down, eyes glued to their smartphones. Despite the densely packed cars during rush hour, subway rides can be eerily quiet. At some point, you might wonder what everyone on board with you is thinking, but the question goes unanswered.

Then, the lights go out. Suddenly there’s chatter—and a chance to go inside the minds of total strangers.

That’s what “Blackout,” a new virtual reality project on Kickstarter from the creative studio Specular, will simulate. It’s a virtual ride in a New York City subway car, and when the lights go out, participants gain the ability to hear the thoughts of the 27 passengers on board. One passenger wonders what that smell is. Another contemplates how society sees her versus who she really is.

In real life, says Specular co-founder James George, blackouts are a powerful way to get people interacting with each other. “During [Hurricane] Sandy when the city was actually blacked out, we [George and co-founder Alexander Porter] were biking through lower Manhattan and all of a sudden, all these social barriers were down and people started to help each other and tell their stories.”

(Specular)

The images in the project Blackout are computer renderings of real New Yorkers, whom the creators carefully interviewed, one by one, to collect their stories. Some are dancers, others are musicians, yoga instructors, and one is even a National Geographic explorer. “Some of those [interviewing] techniques come from yoga teacher training, like finding the language to put people in a very first-person moment and bringing awareness to the subtleties of where they are,” says Mei-Ling Wong, another co-founder of Specular.

In some ways, Blackout is not unlike the popular blog Humans of New York, which Wong says was an inspiration for the project. But its interactivity does add an extra layer of empathy. It’s best viewed through a virtual reality headset like Occulus Rift, inside which you decide whose story you want to hear by looking at and moving your body toward a particular person.

The longer you focus on that person, the deeper their revealed thoughts get. And just like in real life, you miss out on learning about the people you don’t turn your attention to. “That level of decision-making, of feeling like you’re actually discovering something as a viewer and making those trade-offs, is very powerful in terms of creating an emotional response,” says George.

Top: A special camera called the DepthKit is used to capture live-action 3D models of real people. Bottom:  Sound designer Antfood uses a special apparatus to record the subway sounds in 3D. (Specular)

Indeed, researchers have long been studying whether virtual reality, in which you “experience” something rather than simply watching it, can heighten a person’s empathy. It’s still too early to say for sure, but some studies have suggested that virtual reality can make a person more likely to help someone out.

The creators are currently working toward raising $30,000 on Kickstarter to interview even more people and finish building their virtual world. Right now, the images are still a bit rough around the edges, but George says they hope to be able to fine-tune the program. They’re also working on making the film more accessible by creating a version for Google Cardboard. It’ll be slightly less interactive, Porter says, but should still evoke a similar emotional response.

The campaign ends in December. But until then, you can approximate the Blackout experience on your next commute by simply putting away your headphones and tapping the shoulder of the person sitting next to you.

“It’s incredibly rare for somebody to sit down and ask you what is on your mind,” says Porter. “So people tend to be very grateful for that.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Police line up outside the White House in Washington, D.C. as protests against the killing of George Floyd continue.
    Perspective

    America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

    Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed.

  2. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  3. Equity

    What Happened to Crime in Camden?

    Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

  4. Four New York City police officers arresting a man.
    Equity

    The Price of Defunding the Police

    A new report fleshes out the controversial demand to cut police department budgets and reallocate those funds into healthcare, housing, jobs, and schools. Will that make communities of color safer?

  5. A participant holding a Defund Police sign at the protest in Brooklyn.
    Equity

    To Defund the Police, Activists Rewrote City Budgets

    As national protesters call for defunding police, a movement for anti-racist “people’s budgets” is spreading from LA to Nashville to Grand Rapids.

×