PHI VR TO GO: Narrative VR is Taking Off

By Catherine Martellini

PHI VR TO GO at CENTQUATRE-PARIS. Photo: Stella Jacob/Diversion Cinema

[Français]

With PHI VR TO GO, a unique rental and home delivery service for virtual reality headsets, which come preloaded with films, Montreal’s PHI Centre has come up with an innovative way of democratizing VR and reaching audiences outside of cultural venues. After finding success in Montreal and Quebec City, the application was exported to Paris, at the CENTQUATRE-PARIS cultural centre, and to Luxembourg, as part of the 11th edition of the Luxembourg City Film Festival.

The health crisis has shut down cultural venues, museums and art centres. These closures have also put a pause on one of the rare opportunities for visibility offered to narrative and artistic virtual reality works outside of stores such as Oculus or Steam, where they end up being overshadowed by games that have the spotlight in VR.

It was in this pandemic context that the PHI Centre’s installations team looked into adapting its Coherence app, which was already being used for the Centre’s VR Cinema and exhibitions, so that viewers could watch immersive films at home in an autonomous and user-friendly way.

“We initially designed Coherence so that the mediator in the room could properly greet visitors and then launch the film program for them all simultaneously, rather than having to manually activate the program for each VR headset or work on a computer or keyboard in front of them,” explains Marc-André Nadeau, PHI’s technology director.

He realized that all they had to do was modify the application’s interface to create a VR bubble within the headset. After powering on the headset, the user just has to choose their preferred language (English or French for the Montreal market) and then select a film from the catalogue. All of this can be done simply through the movement of their head.

The PHI Centre also revamped its programming to adapt to this new mode of distribution. The 10 award-winning films chosen from major international festivals were narrative and linear, rather than interactive, since the provided headset was better suited for this type of work and it helped streamline the experience.

The Montreal institution launched this service at the end of April in 2020, and it was an instant success. Their 80 Oculus Go headsets have been in constant circulation ever since, which confirms to the Centre that there is an unexpected demand for this type of art.

In Montreal, PHI VR TO GO, virtual reality at home. Photo: Michel Ouellette/PHI

A formula that can be customized as needed

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Diversion Cinema heard about the initiative in May of 2020. The VR space creator and immersive experience distribution company had already tested software on the market that didn’t work well enough for them to even consider delivering headsets directly to the public without the support of a tech professional.

“When the PHI Centre sent me its application and I integrated it into a headset, I was immediately struck by its ease of use and simplicity, which was unlike anything I had experienced before,” revealed Marc Lopato, co-founder of Diversion Cinema and head of operations and business development, who’s collaborated with the PHI Centre for several years. “There is also great visibility given to each of the works and the artists behind them, an aspect that I find truly compelling.”

Unlike Netflix, which doesn’t always display the names of the directors or producer, the app allows for the main credits and synopsis of each work to be featured.

In residence for the last year and a half at 104Factory, which is the startup incubator of the CentQuatre-Paris, the company immediately saw a possible collaboration with the latter artistic establishment.

“We wanted to present the work of performing artists that explore a technique other than live art to bring life to it from the inside, like Half Life VR by Robert Connor” - José-Manuel Gonçalves, director of CENTQUATRE-PARIS

For its part, the CentQuatre-Paris team decided to embark on the adventure not just because part of their activities were interrupted due to the pandemic, but because they felt that the content fit in perfectly with their mission.They also saw its potential of becoming a complementary cultural offering in the future.

The team reviewed a list of narrative VR films for a week. Three elements emerged that corresponded to their cultural vision and guided their selection of the eight films offered by PHI VR TO GO.

“We wanted to present the work of performing artists that explore a technique other than live art to bring life to it from the inside, like Half Life VR by Robert Connor,” explained José-Manuel Gonçalves, director of CENTQUATRE-PARIS. “Films capturing adventurous achievements, where virtual reality manages to bring us closer to reality, were also of interest to us, as well as animation works that dealt with strong and touching themes while going beyond the simple effects of VR.”

The service, in operation since February 9th, will continue until May 7th, 2021, and there is every indication that it will be as successful as the one in Montreal.

PHI VR TO GO concept at CENTQUATRE-PARIS

A larger cultural playground for artistic VR

In order for CENTQUATRE-PARIS to launch PHI VR TO GO in Paris, it needed to have access to headsets, which is the main hurdle to overcome when launching a service like this. Diversion Cinema was able to acquire them thanks to a grant.

The company also worked with the PHI Centre to adapt certain elements of its application for the Parisian public, including its compatibility with the Pico headsets used by Diversion and CENTQUATRE-PARIS. Also, French users had to have access to subtitles for English works, which needed to remain visible regardless of head movement.

These improvements helped to enhance both the experience in Paris and the PHI Centre application itself, which is now compatible with Oculus Quest headsets. This kind of evolutionary development is always at the heart of the Montreal establishment’s vision.

These tiny details may seem minor, but they can really make all the difference in VR, a medium in which a user who has a bad first experience may never want to try it again. “The quality of the artists’ files also contributes greatly to an optimal experience,” adds Marc-André Nadeau.

The PHI Centre and CENTQUATRE-PARIS have also noticed that the VR TO GO service allows them to reach new audiences that know very little about VR — audiences that don’t have buying a headset on their radar or even know that artistic works exist in this format.

“The largest vaccination centre in Paris recently moved to the CENTQUATRE, bringing in an audience of 75 years and older,” explains director José-Manuel Gonçalves. “It’s interesting to observe that even seniors, who may seem removed from this technology and art form, are not only curious about it, but they’re generating word of mouth for the service.”

This approach could even, over time, become the distribution channel that propels narrative VR, which is something the art form is in great need of, according to Marc Lopato of Diversion Cinema.

The PHI Centre’s application has proven itself successful for home use, but it can also be used by festivals and cultural venues that are interested in setting up an easy way to present virtual reality works.

The virtual reality work BattleScar, Punk Was Invented By Girls by Martín Allais / Nico Casavecchia. Narration by Rosario Dawson (left). Ayahuasca — A Kosmik Journey by Jan Kounen (right)

The PHI Centre recently participated in the 11th edition of the Luxembourg City Film Festival, where it prepared the VR headsets in addition to programming the films presented in the virtual reality pavilion from March 4th to 14th, 2021. In parallel to this festival collaboration, PHI VR TO GO will also be deployed for a period of three months to allow Luxembourg audiences to watch the films that were featured in the pavilion at home.

Among the selection of 360° films were three works co-produced by Luxembourg (Under the Skin by João Inada — Tarantula Luxembourg; Putain de facteur humain (Precious Human Factor) by Karolina Markiewicz and Pascal Piron — Don Pedro Productions; and Jan Kounen’s award-winning Ayahuasca — a_BAHN). BattleScar, winner of the best immersive experience at last year’s LuxFilmFest, and currently included in the second program of Montreal’s PHI VR TO GO, was also part of the 2021 edition.

Founded and directed by Phoebe Greenberg in Montreal, PHI is a multidisciplinary arts and culture organization positioned at the intersection of art, film, music, design and technology. Committed to future generations of art consumption, PHI spans the spectrum of radical ideas with a focus on collective experience, social responsibility and audience participation.

PHI consists of the PHI Centre, PHI Studio, artist-in-residence programs and PHI Foundation for contemporary art. Through eclectic programming and a strong emphasis on content creation, PHI fosters unexpected encounters between artists and audiences.

Founded and based in Montreal, Canada, PHI is a multidisciplinary organization positioned at the intersection of contemporary art and technology.

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