Blackout Takes You Inside The Minds Of NYC Subway Commuters

Have you ever looked around a train to wonder what everyone else is thinking? Now you can know.

The NYC subway is a great social experiment, a place where socioeconomics, race, age, and religion take the backseat to one of the only scenes of real diversity in our world: standing room only inside a metal box during rush hour.


If you’ve ever glanced around a subway curious as to where your fellow rider was just 10 minutes ago, then you’ll be equally intrigued by Blackout, a new virtual reality experience by Specular, a studio founded by James George, who is known best for his pioneering 3-D documentary, Clouds. Built for VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, Blackout places you on a NYC subway train, dims the lights for a moments, and grants you telepathic powers. So by looking at one of the 27 passengers, you can hear their innermost thoughts.

“During Hurricane Sandy, I remember walking through blacked out lower Manhattan interacting with strangers that otherwise would have totally ignored one another. In times of crisis, social barriers dissolve and honest human nature is laid bare,” George says. “Through Blackout, we wanted to apply virtual reality and interactive storytelling as a way to put the viewer into one of these intimate and urgent situations, creating a magically real scenario fulfilling the shared fantasy of mind reading.”

Your fellow passengers are played by artists, performers, and everyday people, each of who’ve been interviewed documentary-style in front of a depth-sensing camera, giving them a haunting 3-D presence that’s juxtaposed against very typical sounding human speech. It’s an aesthetic that’s not quite realism–the edges are frayed in digital artifacts, serving as persistent reminder that this isn’t the analog world–but that limitation is something that Specular hopes feeds back into the project’s haunting experience.

“As a small creative studio, we believe in working with the storytelling potential of what we have access to right now. Depth sensing technology like Kinect is an extremely cheap, reliable and efficient way to capture and render humans in virtual and augmented reality,” George says. “[Furthermore], we find the flawed edges heighten the sensation of experiencing a dream.”

“Because of the particularities of the artifacts you mentioned, the techniques we use often get relegated to telling specific kinds of stories: ephemeral or digital stories (holograms, laggy missives from the future, renderings of people living online etc.),” adds creative director Alexander Porter. “We’re excited to enter new territory with this project where we start to use depth sensing to tell stories that are a bit closer to our daily lives and the logic of the social spaces we live in.”

But it’s not just the social spaces that will push the limits of the virtual reality experience. The environment itself is being constructed as a near-perfect facsimile of the NYC subway. Train platforms will be 3-D mapped to look photorealistic as you pass by. And the train car is actually a recreated Alstom R160A train–used on the J, Z, L, A, C, E, N and Q lines–built with a meticulous attention to detail.


“I spent quite a while with a measuring tape riding back and forth on the train,” George says. “I definitely got some strange looks but no one seemed to give it a second thought when I measured the height of the seat beneath them or the circumference of the pole they were leaning against.”

Blackout is raising funds on Kickstarter now, for release on Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive headsets in November 2016.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.