The future is (almost) here: How virtual reality could redefine content creation

A panel on virtual reality held in Montreal discussed what is projected to become a 150 billion industry by 2020.

A symposium at Montreal's MUTEK festival discussed VR with respect to fiction, documentary and journalism

Félix & Paul Studios's Massai ( Félix & Paul Studios)

In Southern Kenya, a Maasai tribesman engages me in a knee to knee staring contest. I win, but only because he can't see me blink behind my Samsung Gear virtual reality headset. In real reality, or RR as it's referred to at the Mutek VR Salon #2, I'm in Montreal. Ten minutes later I'm back in VR, this time in Miami going knee to knee with LeBron James. After he lunges at me a few times on the court, I watch him do some yoga and we tread water side by side in his pool. LeBron takes up so much space in his golf cart, I feel on the edge of being elbowed out. "What a time to be alive!" he says.

It's a feeling expressed often by thriving Canadian VR studios represented at a three-hour symposium on content in fiction, documentary and journalism. Two panel discussions on the subject preceded a five day exhibit open to the public until June 5, at the Montreal arts incubator, PHI. They spoke about recent work created for Hollywood studios, global tech giants and other companies heavily invested in what is projected to become a 150 billion industry by 2020. Still, even at this gathering of emerging industry insiders, panelists were forced to assume that no one in the audience was familiar with any of the work they were talking about.

"It's hard to present on an experience you have to experience to understand" says Sebastian Sylwan, CTO at Felix and Paul, the studio that created both the Maasai and Lebron James VR experiences.

The tides are shifting. People see it. They get it. We're just waiting for that craving for content to grow.- Fezz Stenton of OCCUPIED VR

That said, the strong consensus is that this won't be a problem for much longer. "Finally the headsets are out," says Fezz Stenton of OCCUPIED VR, a Toronto studio that creates documentaries and trippy music videos, including a game engineered animation that takes viewers inside the mind of David Cronenberg. "The tides are shifting. People see it. They get it. We're just waiting for that craving for content to grow."

A participant in MUTEK's VR salon. (Trung Dung Nguyen)

With the cost of experiencing VR having plummeted in the last year, it's on track to grow fast. In November, The New York Times sent out free Google Cardboard headsets to its print subscribers to go with a Virtual Reality App that has broken all its download records. In December, The Huffington Post featured Crossings, a virtual reality documentary on Syrian refugees. In Montreal, Le Journal de Montreal regularly hosts 360 degree content on its digital platform, and Urbania, the Montreal based content platform and production company is now creating VR content to go with its Bell Media financed French language documentary series, Infiltration.

When asked if English Canadian media were in the process of launching similar ventures, Stéphane Cardin VP of Industry and Public Affairs of the Canadian Media Fund replies with a frank, "not that I know of." And no one else asked here is able to answer this question in the affirmative. Stenton suspects this is due to money invested and lost in expensive 3D projects of the past, but adds that Occupied VR is in the early stages of projects too early to make public, but a good indication of a growing willingness to start risking again.

In the meantime, the exhibit was an excellent sampling of the kind of content that is likely to be available sometime sooner in the future than many people might expect. Over the course of an hour, I could walk through Montreal Metro tunnels in the dead of night, float 40,000 feet above the earth's surface in a weather balloon, and stand on a beach in Greece so covered with abandoned life jackets it was nearly impossible to see the sand. But not as hard to feel that shifting tide.

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