Does Virtual Reality have to be about visuals? Does it have to be high tech? Does it have to be a realistic simulation? Blindphones is a case study on the sonic and optical properties of bacterial cellulose and at the same time an attempt to approach Virtual Reality and immersion from a low-fi low-tech perspective.
Blindphones is a joint project between the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Media/MediaLab and the School of Chemical Engineering, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems, Aalto Studios. The first prototype was presented at Ars Electronica Festival 2018, Linz.
Virtual reality, in its current wave, is very much driven by commercial preoccupations, as the last generation of headsets come as a consumer electronic commodity, which results in proprietary technologies exposed to extremely rapid obsolescence, black box tools and strategies more directed towards entertainment and profit than art.
The idea behind this experimental prototype is to re-appropriate some of the key concepts behind VR creating a low-fi low-tech sonic headset using simple, widely available technologies and sustainable materials. Blindphones draws from the psychedelic tradition of early VR art and drone music, and, by impairing sight, researches an enhanced listening.
The Blindphones acts like a sensory deprivation tank, where the body floats weightlessly in a dark quiet environment, and the mind is free to shift from a meditative state up to an hallucinatory one.
The materials used in Blindphones are as much as possible from sustainable, biodegradable sources, such as bacterial cellulose and biodegradable PLA.
Bacterial-cellulose is a material produced by some strains of non-pathogenic bacteria, that can be grown in thin membranes that can be actuated to diffuse sound, delivering a broad frequency range.
The material is also partly transparent, but it impairs sight significantly, allowing only for a limited perception of surrounding lights, with peculiar light diffraction if used as a lens.
Blindphones immerses a solitary visitor in a world of music and choreographed faint shifting lights in total privacy. It hangs, like an open carnivore plant blossom on its own stem, from the ceiling of a dark room. It can be worn while seated, similarly to a traditional blindfold. It allows for the head to move freely, while keeping the body in a fixed position.
A range of non-conventional sonic devices generate a soundscape and a simple lights and shadows design is projected around the visitor. This is perceivable, almost subliminally, through the odd transparencies of the headset’s membranes and reacts to sound and the user’s movements.