If you live in an urban center like New York, it’s likely that you’re accustomed to riding the subway. It’s simultaneously one of the most alienating and communal experiences you can have in a city–especially during rush hour, when people from all walks of life squeeze into cramped train cars and hurtle towards their destinations, trying not to sniff too deeply or take up too much space. You might spend hours of your life brushing shoulders with the other denizens of your city, but you never really know who they are.
A new VR project called Blackout, which is being created and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade, is trying to change that. A collaboration between the immersive media studio Scatter and the VR tech startup DepthKit, Blackout plops its viewers directly into the familiar setting of a New York City subway car and surrounds them with virtual strangers. But these aren’t characters manufactured for the virtual environment–they’re real New Yorkers who’ve been filmed in 3D using DepthKit’s volumetric camera.
Blackout was funded via a Kickstarter campaign launched in 2015, but has since evolved from then to become a living, growing project as more and more people are sharing their lives and becoming part of the subway car populace. During Tribeca, the team is continuing to scan people and add them to the experience, making the project more representative of the vast diversity of New York City, and giving people the chance to experience a VR work-in-progress.
For five years, Tribeca has held an immersive storytelling section, with experiences like Blackout competing for awards just like more traditional films. In the VR arcade, which feels almost like a trade show, different experiences are set up in booths. Blackout‘s setup is an empty physical replica of a subway car in its most bare-bones form: there are just white plastic seats and metal poles to hold onto, and nothing else. Two people can experience Blackout at once, with one person on each side of the car (light blue lines appear in your field of view during Blackout so you know the limits of your space).
With your body situated in the physical replica of a subway car, the experience begins once the subway doors close and the car leaves the station. Since the virtual environment matches the physical one, you can hold onto a pole or sit down and move confidently through the space. As you explore the subway car, you notice that if you look at one of your fellow passengers for long enough, they begin to glow and all of a sudden you can hear what sounds like their interior monologue. It takes a second to get oriented, but it’s hard not to immediately get sucked into the stories of the people around you. As you surf from person to person, sometimes one stranger’s story will catch your attention and you’ll be drawn to them. The more you listen, the more you learn about them.
When I put on the headset and entered Blackout, I was confronted with a sparsely populated subway car. Some people stood, while others sat, but there was room enough to move around them. I was first drawn to a young woman wearing a headscarf who was talking about how she just wanted a normal high school experience but was nervous about going to prom. I then turned my gaze on a young Latino man who fiddled with his phone while I listened to his thoughts on racial profiling and how frustrating it was to navigate a system that he knew wasn’t built for him. Then, I looked to an older woman who sat hunched over next to me. She began to talk about how her children were sleeping on the floor because she couldn’t afford beds for them. The filmmakers later told me she was the first Kurdish Syrian refugee who’d come to the United States.
But everyone who enters Blackout has a different experience, based on who they interact with and who populates their subway car in the first place. Right now, the team at Scatter has interviewed and filmed about 30 people, and they’ve set up a volumetric filming station at Tribeca Film Festival to continue adding people to the experience as the week progresses. Recently, they’ve added a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD, a minority police officer, a woman who’d lived in Harlem since the Harlem Renaissance and had seen the neighborhood undergo drastic changes, and an openly gay man who had decided to use Blackout as the platform to tell his community that he was HIV positive.
“We’re living in a time where we feel that discussion and listening and conversation are vitally important,” says Alexander Porter, the director of Blackout, and the cofounder of both Scatter and DepthKit. “We carefully designed it so that in order to listen to the material, to access the stories from the people in the train, you have to step forward, look at them, do all the physical gestures required of listening.”
Porter and co-director Yasmin Elayat deliberately chose people who would add a new level of dimension to the experience–but they’re all meant to be relatable, whether you agree with them politically or not. The project’s open, generative nature is a deliberate one that was partially inspired by a divided, post-election America, where the act of listening and safe, open dialogue seemed like a feature of an older world.
“We hope people leave with a sense that they were rewarded for a certain kind of behavior–bearing witness, listening, taking part in the conversation,” Porter says. “Hopefully they’ll go out and exhibit some of that behavior in their daily life.”
But Blackout isn’t just a VR experience–it’s also helping the DepthKit team develop their technology. While their volumetric capture technology has been in development since 2011 and has been used in all of Scatter’s projects as well as projects from Google and other well-known VR creators, their 3D scanner paired with multiple film-quality cameras is making its public debut with Blackout. The tech exists purely behind the scenes, with photographic images of people in the experience that flicker slightly, conveniently avoiding any uncanny valley issues. And as the Scatter team continues to add people to the experience throughout Tribeca Film Festival, the DepthKit team is actively incorporating what they’re learning from the filmmaking process into their product development.
While the team continues to scan more people, adding them to the experience at random so that people can interact with them now, ultimately Blackout will be a three-part series, with each episode focusing on a prescient political issue. The people they scan at Tribeca will become part of episode one, which they plan to distribute on high-end headsets and on mobile headsets later this year.
After I departed Blackout‘s train and rejoined Porter and Elayat in the bustle of Tribeca’s VR Arcade, a man walked up to us and greeted them both. He introduced himself as Kevin Duarte, and it was immediately apparent to me that he was the young Latino man who’d spoken about living in a system that wasn’t built for him. “I just met you!” I said.
“I’ve been getting a lot of that today,” he said.
I asked why he’d decided to join the project, and what it had been like to go through the experience and meet his virtual self.
“It’s VR, I thought it’d be cool,” he said. Then he paused.
“You ride the train with strangers all the time, but I find that the experience of reading people’s minds changed something in me.”