Notes on Blindness VR is a free iPad app that creates an immersive experience to help sighted people better understand the experience of blindness. The app is based on the audio diaries of John Hull (1935-2015), a writer and theologian who was completely blind for the last 32 years of his life. It combines eloquent clips from Hull's diaries, sound effects, and visual elements to explore some of the realities he faced while coming to grips with living in a sightless world. Notes on Blindness is an exceptional educational app that earns not only our Editors' Choice, but also a rare 5-star rating.
The app, which was inspired by the 2016 British documentary Notes on Blindness, based on Hull's life, can run on an iPhone or iPod touch, as well as the iPad. I tested Notes on Blindness on an iPad Air 2$409.50 at Amazon running iOS 10.2. It is recommended that you turn the screen brightness all the way up when using the app and use headphones. Both suggestions are helpful, although the app also worked okay without headphones, with the sound turned all the way up.
Design and Features
As the VR in its name suggests, Notes on Blindness has a virtual reality focus. By panning the iPad in hand or moving the device up or down, you're treated to a 360-degree view. By tilting the iPad all the way downward, you see the words Back to Menu; hovering over them takes you to the menu, which has links to the app's six sections, as well as to the credits. As the scene changes in response to your panning, I found it easiest to use the app when I was either seated in a swivel chair or standing.
It may seem surprising that an app that focuses on sightlessness is so reliant on visual elements. Skillfully woven together with narrative and sound effects, the visuals provide a frame of reference to help sighted people to better understand an unseen world. Most of the visuals are evocative of visual impairment, depicting a "shadow world" in which vague blue or white forms—people, trees, a bird, a carousel, the interior of a church— appear (and sometimes move) against a black background. The sound consists of narration (sections of Hull's recordings), sound effects, such as wind, rain, and footsteps, and one choral piece.
The section titled On Panic confronts the terror of facing a lifetime without sight. Hull describes the first blindness-related panic that he experienced, on a winter's day in which, on taking a walk from his house, he felt a growing sense of dread, as if he were walking through a dark tunnel from which there was no escape. The app leads the user through this journey; while he is talking, you hear his footsteps, and you advance to different sections of the recording by hovering over sets of footprints until, finally, you hear the door close behind you, and you are safely inside.
Although Hull suffered deep depression and despair in the early years after losing his eyesight, he came through it to gain an acceptance of his condition. In the section called The Choir, he describes his joy at listening to a concert of young singers performing religious music and how, when afterwards a friend tells him how brightly the singers were dressed and how radiant they looked, he realized that his appreciation of the music is no less because it lacks a visual element.
If the app has a shortcoming, it's simply that it could only include a small selection of the 16 hours of audio recordings that Hull made, and that were first published in book form under the title, Touching the Rock. The included clips focus mostly on perception and give few details of his story. Those sections that are included, though, describe the importance of sound in a sightless world, and touch on both the dread that accompanied the onset of his blindness, and his ultimate acceptance of his condition.
Epilogue and Conclusion
In the epilogue, perhaps to transition the viewer back to the land of the sighted and to affirm the culmination of Hull's own journey through the literal and metaphorical dark night of the soul, the shadow world that formed the visuals for the rest of the app is replaced by an outdoor scene with a pale, milky background and vague representations of an adult and several children. In this section, recorded not too long before his death, Hull reflects on his more than 30 years of blindness, musing on whether he would have gotten to know his children—now adults—better had he been able to see them over all those years. "I don't need to see them. I don't think I would have known them any more if I could have seen them. My life with them has been one of conversation, of stories lived together, of passing days." "After all," he concludes, "being human is not seeing—it's loving."
The beauty of the app is that Hull's exacting and eloquent descriptions have the power to induce a shift in the user's frame of reference, to let him or her better understand the world that a visually impaired person experiences. In writing this review, I've found myself frequently confronted by my own word choices, realizing that many words and phrases in common use—"a glimpse into," "illustrate," and even "gain insight"—are visual metaphors.
Notes on Blindness is an extraordinary educational app. It draws on the eloquent and precise descriptions of someone who spent much of his life completely blind, working through despair to come to an acceptance of his condition and a renewed appreciation of the value of his life. It makes great use of the combination of virtual reality, narration, sound effects, and visual elements to create an immersive, empathetic environment. I can strongly recommend Notes on Blindness for anyone who wants to better understand the experience of people who have lost, or are losing, their eyesight.