Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
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.”
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.
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.”