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SCIENCE AND TECH

4 MIN

Canadians Make Virtual Reality Less of a Fantasy

VR for consumers is really here, and players in Toronto and Montreal have been especially influential in its early development

As hard as it might be to believe now, it was only a short time ago that Canada was riding the wave of the BlackBerry smartphone. Basking in the glow of the revolutionary device, the country became known as a global tech leader. That era quickly passed, as Apple crushed Research in Motion (RIM) with its now ubiquitous iPhone. Now, over a decade after the heyday of RIM, a new technology widely being touted as the next great medium for storytelling is helping put Canadian businesses and entrepreneurs on the map once again.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a term that is still met with plenty of blank stares, but just a decade ago, telling someone that you’d downloaded a new app for your iPhone sounded like sorcery too. Today we are virtually one with our phones. We listen to podcasts as we scan and deposit cheques through our bank apps, before tuning into a daily language lesson on another app. You might use it as a running aid, to track calories, to read books or a million other uses. Many of us hold onto our phones at all times like they are an extension of our limb. With the Oculus Rift — an affordable VR headsets for the masses – having been available since March, VR could soon seem just as ordinary.  

Virtual reality has perhaps an even greater potential than smartphones to revolutionize our world, and two Canadian companies are leaders in the field: the content studio Felix & Paul of Montreal, and the agency Secret Location, out of Toronto.

Through VR, you can strap on a goofy-looking headset and experience a nauseating car crash, or be transported into a containment centre in Sierra Leone during the depths of the Ebola outbreak. (Or you can just watch pornography.) It goes so much further than a regular TV or movie experience, says Stefan Grambart, creative director at Secret Location. “What this medium does above anything else is give a sense of presence. You hear about immersion, but you can immerse yourself in TV, in books. VR gives you presence, you don't ever feel like you're in there while watching TV, but you truly feel like you’re there with VR.”

"Once we knew they were building headsets that cost hundreds of dollars, we knew it was our time."

VR is making its first tentative moves into the mainstream. The New York Times collaborated with Google to enable one million Times subscribers to experience the newest Times documentary in VR. Secret Location had already released a virtual reality documentary for the legendary Frontline on PBS documentary series, and nabbed a primetime Emmy for the TV show Sleepy Hollow, the first Emmy for VR.

“Winning the Emmy really thrust us into the spotlight,” Grambart says. “All the Hollywood studios started calling up after that.”

Another Canadian-based leader in VR is the eponymously named Felix & Paul Studios, owned by Montreal’s Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael. The pair started working together on music videos 12 years ago, but now they want – as The Hollywood Reporter put it – to become “the Spielbergs of virtual reality.”

“We both shared an obsession for immersive cinema,” says Lajeunesse about their first foray into VR. “We wanted to find a deeper sense of emotional and sensorial reaction, like you get from Kubrick films.”

The studio started out by creating large scale immersive entertainment at events, which Lajeunesse calls their “pre-VR phase.” They focused their efforts on VR after Oculus Rift announced that affordable VR sets were on the way. “Once we knew they were building headsets that cost hundreds of dollars, instead of millions of dollars, we knew it was our time.”

The firm now creates VR experiences in collaboration with well-known institutions and names including Cirque de Soleil, Jurassic Park, Lebron James and even Bill Clinton. Now a fast growing studio with 32 employees in Montreal, the future looks incredibly bright for Felix and Paul, as well as the industry in general.

“There’s been tremendous activity and interest in the last couple years, especially in Canada.” Felix says. “It’s a completely new industry, it’s not an extension of anything, it’s just a wholly new medium.”

Courtesy Felix & Paul Studios

Scene from Herders, part of Felix & Paul's Nomads series

And many, like Toronto independent filmmaker Elli Raynai, are jumping headfirst into the uncharted waters to make their mark on the world. Raynai recently quit his job, and subsequently turned down an offer to become the Toronto director of a prestigious VR film festival, all to focus on his dream of making VR films.

Raynai was still working a regular day job two years ago when he began attending meetups in Toronto, which at that point only had a handful of attendees. At one of the meetups, he met a software developer named Alex Kondratskiy, and together they began brainstorming a project. Raynai would lead creatively, and Kondratskiy would make it work technically. The two poured countless hours into their idea and eventually produced a stunning film called I Am You, considered to be the first narrative short VR film in Canada. The two managed to get the film onto the Samsung Gear VR store – which is akin to the Apple app store, but for VR devices.

“That was a huge accomplishment for us,” Raynai says. “We started getting calls from people who wanted to see it, and we took it to festivals. It was the start of everything for us.”

"Every time I travel for a VR conference, I see people from the Toronto meetups. There’s just major energy here."

He’s one of a growing number of independent filmmakers and game developers in Toronto and Montreal who are betting big on the potential of VR. “Toronto is a hotbed for tech and film, and so it’s only natural that VR has sort of managed to merge us together in this city,” Raynai says. “It’s an exciting time for us, it’s like when the first iPhone came out, and the first personal computer.”

Ben Unsworth, president and co-founder of another Toronto-based VR firm, Globacore Technologies, says independents like Raynai have spurred the growth of VR in the city. “You have two prominent meetups in Toronto, with over 100 people coming out each month, and every time I travel for a VR conference, I always see people from the Toronto meetups. There’s just major energy here.”

Like the others, Unsworth believes that VR is just beginning to take off, but still needs one more thing to happen before it does. “We still have to wait a while for mainstream adoption of headsets, but when that happens, the sky’s the limit.”

Published Tuesday, May 31st 2016

Header image credit: Still from Secret Location promotional video

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