I heard the familiar "ding dong" of the NYC subway as the doors closed and looked over to the person sitting next to me, and all of a sudden, they were telling me their life story. It was like one of those serendipitous moments of human connection that you dream of when you move to a city -- before the crushing reality of daily life makes you more cynical. It also wasn't real.
I was sitting through Blackout, a VR experience that places you inside a subway car alongside virtual versions of real-life New Yorkers. It was one of the most unique encounters I had at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, and it's among many examples of how VR storytelling is now aiming a bit deeper.
Developed by the NYC VR studio Scatter, Blackout is meant to shine a light on stories from everyday subway riders. The company used DepthKit, its volumetric capturing technology, to record New Yorkers in three dimensions as they told their tales. Their models were then dropped into a virtual environment, which you explore in a VR headset while walking around a physical subway car replica.
"What we wanted people to feel in Blackout was intimacy and a sense of community with strangers around us," said Yasmin Elayat, Blackout's co-director. "The idea would be like This American Life for VR. ... In each episode we're talking a certain meta theme or topic." In the first episode, Scatter explored the idea of what it means to be American and the idea of otherness, topics that feel particularly relevant in the current political climate.
When I stepped into Blackout, I found myself in an L train heading into Manhattan. After some sort of mechanical issue, the train stalled, giving me time to look around the car. The passengers around me weren't photorealistic. Instead, they looked like semiabstract digital interpretations of their human counterparts. That's partially due to the technology involved, and partially it's an aesthetic choice. It gives Blackout a dreamlike vibe rather than a purely realistic tone. There are also some clear cinematic influences, like Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.
Each time I focused on a person, she was highlighted with a spotlight and I instantly started hearing her story. There was a child of illegal immigrants, who talked about growing up in Long Island and seeing rising racial tensions over the years. There was a busker who spent his life in the city and belted out a beautiful melody. And there was a Muslim-American woman who worried how people perceive her today.
Blackout was unique among the many VR entries at Tribeca because it was an ongoing project. Scatter was scanning new participants throughout the festival, the idea being that you'd encounter new people every time you went through the experience (like the real New York City subway!). Eventually, Scatter plans to release it for home viewing. Without the massive replica subway car, of course.