The future of reality is virtual at Montreal’s PHI Centre


In the four years since the multidisciplinary PHI Centre opened, it’s made a name for itself as everything from a unique performance venue to an art gallery, theatre and pop-up dinner destination.

But it’s the centre’s latest exhibit space, the Virtual Reality Garden, that’s making waves – and offering a new opportunity for local companies to work in VR technology.

After the unprecedented success of its exhibit Sensory Stories last fall, through which more than 11,000 visitors smelled, listened, saw and touched their way, the PHI Centre decided to dedicate a permanent space to immersive experiences, the centre’s director of public relations Myriam Achard told MTLinTECH.

“We realized that there was a real curiosity for virtual reality,” she said.

Soon after, the Virtual Reality Garden was born. After reopening in mid-June, visitors will be able to use one of four Samsung Gear VR headsets to view films ranging from four to 11 minutes, so all four films can be viewed in about 30 minutes, said Achard. The centre also has two transportable headsets, which make their way to events around the city.

Smile More: The Journey of a Song follows the musical process from rehearsal studio to concert stage. Take Flight puts you inside iconic movie moments of famous actors in flight. The Displaced follows the lives of three children driven from their homes by war. And Walking New York covers the making of the 150-foot-tall portrait of a recent immigrant in the Flatiron Pedestrian Plaza in New York City.

“The experience can be very captivating,” said PHI Centre employee Mira Schutt. Some visitors have trouble watching The Displaced because of the subject matter and the intensity of the feeling of empathy created by the experience, she said.

“In the film, three children from around the world talk about their experience, about the war, how they lost their parents. Some people sometimes cry when they watch this movie.”

But for most, the films simply make a deep impression, she said. Visitors particularly enjoy Walking New York. “Normally people react like they want to go to New York, because it’s like you’re really in that city.”

PHI centre

For the moment, the centre doesn’t produce any VR content itself, said Achard. The four it’s currently showing come from The New York Times Magazine and Vrse.works.

But the centre recently announced a call-out for three teams to produce a one-minute 360˚ film each on the theme of “Montreal of the Future.” Successful applicants will attend an eight-week residency at the PHI Centre where they’ll work with directors, producers, technicians, screenwriters and other mentors. The deadline for applications is August 15, 2016, with residencies starting in September.

Previously, the centre worked with local company Felix & Paul Studios, whose VR production Strangers with Patrick Watson for Samsung’s Gear VR was one of the first pieces of VR content picked up and remastered for the Oculus Rift. (The PHI Centre also included Felix & Paul’s Nomads: Herders in its recent exhibit at London’s Canada House, making it part of PHI’s first transatlantic VR work.)

“We experienced Strangers with Patrick Watson and we were blown away!” said Achard. “We knew we had to find a way to work with Felix & Paul Studios as this new technology is the future of storytelling.”

The busy centre has also partnered with local festivals including MUTEK, Montreal’s Digital Spring and the International Biennale of Digital Art. Three-Michelin-starred Massimo Bottura, known from Netflix’s Chef’s Table was even there for a sold-out cooking demo.

The PHI Centre isn’t just hoping visitors will appreciate the novelty of VR; it wants to be at the forefront of a burgeoning industry in the city. According to a report by the Quebec Film and Television Council, Montreal has all the building blocks to becoming a VR hub.

“We believe more than ever that the Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality sector can be a important business opportunity for Quebec,” said Pierre Moreau, the council’s Managing Director and National Commissioner at the release of the study last February.

Achard agrees; she hopes the PHI Centre will be a large part of making VR technology more commonplace by incorporating it into the centre’s artistic arsenal. “By being a multi-disciplinary building, we have all the tools necessary to be the one-stop destination for a wide range of artists, producers and cultural innovators.”

The Virtual Reality Garden will re-open in mid-June, 2016 and will be free until the end of the month. Two headsets playing NYT Magazine films will also live permanently in the centre’s boutique and remain free to the public. The Sensory Stories exhibit, which includes VR elements, will also return this summer in a new incarnation for both those who visited last year and for first timers.

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