PHI Centre’s Horizons VR brings a whole new form to film

The multipurpose venue displays award-winning virtual reality works

The PHI Centre reopened its Horizons VR exhibition on Nov. 9. The installation consists of four different rooms, each designated for a virtual reality exhibit, some including user-interactive elements. These award-winning pieces were all breathtaking in their own unique ways. Each one had me pulling off my headset either in complete awe or in intense reflection on the content I had just experienced.

Goliath: Playing with Reality is about a man who is diagnosed with schizophrenia after losing his parents, after which he spends several years in isolation taking strong medication. The protagonist, who goes by Goliath, finds solace in connecting with the outside world through video games after his return home. 

This piece is a true sensory overload. Bombardments of colours, shapes, and creatures create an intense feeling of hallucination and detachment from reality, all while keeping a video game theme as the virtual world demonstrates pixelated elements over many occasions. A few interactive moments involving first-person shooting and old arcade games allowed an extra level of immersion, and Tilda Swinton’s partial-narration was a soothing contrast to the chaos displayed throughout. 

Adil Boukind/Centre PHI

A following room is designated for the viewing of Reeducated, the animated true story of three strangers who were placed in a Xinjiang “reeducation” camp. The three men were caught in the middle of quite possibly the “largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the second world war,” according to The New Yorker

Displayed as a 360° VR short film, the memoir strikes emotion visually and through storytelling. The animation, created with a nod to Chinese ink wash painting, exposes the bleak horrors that average citizens must endure if they come from circumstances that aren’t to the government’s liking. As for the narrators, their friendship formed through hardship is poignant and tear-jerking, and it can be felt through the story they recount.

The third VR work, Kusunda, brings the viewer to rural Nepal, where they are placed in an interview conducted as a POW with shaman Lil Bahadur, who has forgotten his dying native dialect of Kusunda. Meanwhile, his granddaughter Hima takes initiative to revive the language of her family and ancestors. 

The heartwarming film tells their story through colourful CGI animation as well as live-action, splitting between informative and artful entertainment. The learning experience is topped off interactively, as the viewer is asked to pronounce words of the Kusunda language in order to resume the experience, which in turn spreads the subtle revival of the dialect. 

Finally, Marco & Polo Go Round tells the story of a couple facing problems in their relationship, which takes a severe anti-gravitational twist. As we follow the couple around their messy apartment, many objects around the kitchen fly up in the air, sticking to the ceiling. This is a reflection of the gradual dissolution of the protagonists’ love. 

Marco & Polo Go Round is about half the length of all of the other pieces, so it only has enough time to strike hard with its surrealism. The message, while not up-front, is especially thought provoking given the minimal context provided. It’s a beautiful animated metaphor.

It’s clear why the PHI Centre selected these four works to display. Each one deserved to win their multiple respected awards. Virtual reality, if done correctly, can definitely be an art form.

Student Life

Cinema and the digital world

Once a Concordia film production student, Félix Lajeunesse is now the co-founder of one of the largest virtual reality companies in the world, Felix & Paul Studios. At a panel discussion on Feb. 12, he shared insight on how he and his team built a virtual reality studio from scratch with nothing but a dream in mind.

When I studied film production in 2003, the dream was to be a film director,” Lajeunesse said. “At that time, I would have not guessed that I would end up doing work in a different medium than cinema.”

Lajeunesse’s talk, led by professor Daniel Cross of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, was part of Concordia’s president speakers series on digital futures. The conversation discussed virtual reality (VR) technology and its application for users around the world.

VR technology and projects immerse viewers in different worlds. In the early years of Felix & Paul Studios, Lajeunesse and his partner, Paul Raphaël, focused on building a camera to create an immersive, 360-degree experience. Their goal was to experiment with 3D technology that would give viewers an immersive cinematic experience rather than just an interactive one. “You feel like you’re there. You feel present inside the story, completely immersed, emotionally and psychologically, but you can’t say hi to the people in [that] world,” Lajeunesse said.

Creating Felix & Paul Studios has given Lajeunesse and Raphaël the opportunity to collaborate with notable figures, such as Barack Obama, Reese Witherspoon and LeBron James. Their team is composed of filmmakers, as well as engineers, programmers, sound technicians and others who diverge from the traditional filmmaking crew.

Lajeunesse said he chose the medium of VR because it shares stories from the perspective of the viewer, not the director. For example, a simulation of reality created by Felix & Paul Studios gives viewers the opportunity to feel like they are sitting face-to-face with former U.S. President Barack Obama.

According to Lajeunesse, their business model was risky because it involved investing in a medium that wasn’t considered an industry yet. It payed off, however, as Lajeunesse and Raphaël got their first investment from Phoebe Greenberg, the founder of the Phi Centre, a multidisciplinary art centre in Montreal. Lajeunesse said Greenberg believed in their project and gave them the financial backing to get the company started.

Lajeunesse said believing in their vision for Felix & Paul Studios is what kept him and Raphaël going as creatives. We had to find a way to sell our dreams,” he said. “We had to find a way to package our desires and our vision of whatever we were building and sell it, to convince people that there was a business case inside of it.”

For more information about Felix & Paul Studios’ upcoming projects, check out their website at

Feature image taken by Kirubel Mehari

Student Life

A community space for Concordia students

Technology Sandbox offers a place to learn about emerging technologies and create innovative projects

Through the glass walls, students passing by witness the familiar sight of hundreds of heads bent down with eyes fixed on textbooks and computer screens. Yet just a few steps further down the hall is a vastly different scene. The smiles on the faces of people holding game controllers and screwdrivers break the oppressive stillness on the second floor of the Webster Library.   

Last winter, the Technology Sandbox at Concordia was created based on the concept of makerspace—a public space that gives people access to machines and tools for small-scale projects. It is the brainchild of Concordia’s head librarian, Guylaine Beaudry, and part of the Webster Library’s renovations. According to Jasia Stuart, the Sandbox’s technology analyst, the idea is to offer students and staff experiential learning using new technologies in a hazard-free environment.

Stuart’s job is to decide what equipment is purchased for the space and what will be made available for rent. “It is about finding the fine balance between distinguishing established technologies from trends and finding interesting and stimulating material that is good value,” she said. In addition to the many machines available for use at the Sandbox, equipment can be rented for three days or two weeks by all Concordia students and staff members.

Cooney’s interest in electronics makes it easy for him to unsolder a delicate piece from a hardware for a student. Photo by Elisa Barbier

Stuart’s co-worker, Sean Cooney—known by his middle name, Tailor—is the Sandbox’s technician. He oversees the functioning of most of the space’s technology, including the 3D printers, the virtual reality (VR) headsets as well as the soldering and electronic equipment. Cooney also helps students use the machines and software.

The Sandbox’s services are divided into four categories: 3D printing, electronics, media creation and virtual reality. Each category has equipment that can be loaned-out, including alienware computers, Playstation VR, cameras, microphones, green screens and Raspberry Pi programming kits.

“We make sure to have a lot of the common tools that people would use for their projects,” Cooney said. Other machinery, such as a sewing machine, a vinyl sticker cutter, synthesizers, motor kits and brainwave scanners are available for use at the Sandbox.

Since its opening in February, the Sandbox’s users and following has steadily increased, according to Cooney. “The summer was certainly busier than expected,” he said. Thanks to a thriving community of volunteers, in addition to Cooney and Stuart, the Sandbox managed to handle an unprecedented number of people and projects, and prepared equipment for the new semester. “It got really busy during the end of the winter semester with all the engineering students finishing their projects, and I believe it’s safe to assume the same for this semester,” Cooney said.

Technology has been part of Cooney’s life for as long as he can remember. “I have just been intensely curious about technology,” he said. “Anything you need to know, we can teach you—material-wise, we usually have it all on hand.” Stuart mentioned it is not always easy to properly welcome newcomers to the Sandbox since she and her co-workers are often busy helping others. Yet, she and Cooney still make an effort to approach students who look intrigued by the machines, inviting them to print a small design from the 3D printers or try VR applications.

Stuart is also responsible for developing, planning and hosting workshops. “The workshops are there to help new people break into new technologies,” she said. Stuart pointed out that most workshops serve as introductions for Concordia staff or students to learn complicated vocabulary or interface in a structured environment. “It is also a way for students [who] are less assertive to come and know as much as others who would walk in and say, right off the bat, what they want to do,” she added. Workshops are held once or twice a week. “We try to keep them up to two hours for students to attend between their classes,” Cooney said.

Jasia Stuart helps Julie Ménard, student in First Nation people, to install thread on the sewing machine so she can complete a project for her class. Photo by Elisa Barbier

“There doesn’t have to be a direct correlation between what people are studying and what they do at the Sandbox,” Stuart said. The space counts many engineering and computer science students as regulars, but also welcomes students studying business, fine arts and humanities. “It is a place where you can have fun, learn and develop projects with people from different departments,” Cooney said. Described as a “dream job” by both Cooney and Stuart, the Sandbox is a place where people can create from their own imagination and meet like-minded people with a burning sense of curiosity.


Virtual reality

According to Cooney, VR is just a stepping stone to more advanced technologies. “Virtual reality is an emerging technology with a lot of potential recognized by people inside and outside of the tech community,” he said.

Omar Qadri paints mid air as he tries virtual reality for the first time with the HTC vive headset at the Technology Sandbox. Photo by Elisa Barbier

One of the Sandbox’s purposes is to teach people how to develop their own VR applications. Users can explore these skills through introductory workshops on Unity—a game developing software—and by using one of two computers with HTC vive headsets—which are currently the best on the market.

The headsets, equipped with a unique tracking system, allow instant localization and orientation of the users so they can move freely in a wide playing area. This allows students developing applications to create content using spatial movement, an important characteristic of VR. “This [system] varies from traditional virtual reality headsets, with which you need to look at a computer and sit down,” Cooney said.

In order to get newcomers accustomed to VR, the Sandbox uses a 3D painting application. “Very few people are going to be making their masterworks with this application, but it is a very polished, very tamed first experience,” Cooney said. Other applications, such as Google Earth, flight simulators, zombie games or a roller-coaster simulator are available once users feel more comfortable with VR.

The Sandbox also offers two student-made applications— application that explores the rules of gravity and a multidimensional application that allows players to pass through windows into a world of Van Gogh-style watercolours. “We are aiming to have as much student-generated content as possible,” Cooney said.

He added that he loves to see people try VR for the first time. “Just to see the reactions, varying from a fairly mute awe to a full-on wow of people being flabbergasted, is incredible.” For Cooney, VR is unique because there aren’t many experiences that allows someone to be surrounded by stars. He said he believes in the educational power of VR. “because it is so immersive. It is a very effective learning experience—you will definitely remember things,” he said.


Regulars at the Sandbox

When Daron Kasbar (right) is not studying software engineering, he comes to the Technology Sandbox to work on his electric longboard. Photo by Elisa Barbier

Lloyd Bureau

A Concordia student majoring in Supply Chain Operations Management at the John Molson School of Business, Lloyd Bureau is one of many students who comes to the Sandbox to work on a personal project. “I heard about Technology Sandbox and their five 3D printers earlier this semester,” he said. “All the softwares are available for us and easy to use—all of this is free for students. It’s amazing how much support we get from Concordia.”

Bureau is the founder of a startup company called TRYNYTY, which makes freestyle scooter products. “We design, manufacture and distribute the products to specialized action sport retailers all around the world,” he said. All of TRYNYTY’s products are currently manufactured in Montreal. “We hope to keep it that way for as many of our products as possible,” Bureau added.

TRYNYTY currently sells four products that have been developed over the last year, in six different international stores. Among these locations is the California-based The Vault Pro Scooters. “It’s the biggest online retail store in the world for freestyle scooters,” Bureau said.

“Bureau regularly brings his scooter to the Technology Sandbox in order to improve and work on his products. “This is the first product we came up with,” he said, proudly holding up his scooter to show off the pegs he and his team created at the Sandbox using a 3D printer. “Basically, we are rethinking the scooter from A to Z, every single part on it, so that we can find a way to improve it,” he said.

Rahul Ranjan

Ranjan is doing his masters at Concordia in information system security. He is passionate about the technological world and is a staff member at the Sandbox. “I work here to help people. I help people learn about technology. If there is someone who wants to learn how to use the 3D printer, I am here to guide them,” he said.

Of the Sandbox’s five 3D printers, one is is multi-material—it creates products in more than one colour, contrary to the typical single-material 3D printers.

The first step to 3D printing at the Sandbox, Ranjan explained, is to bring in the design of the item. “We can also help you create the design here and download it,” he said. The design needs to be downloaded as an STL file. “After downloading the file, we use a software known as Slicer which converts the STL file into G-Code,” he said.

According to Ranjan, G-Code combines X, Y and Z axes to produce a three-dimensional result. “If there is a print that is five centimetres, it will create coordinate points and then the points will connect. Slicer will create the layers of your model,” he explained. The final step is to actually print the 3D version of the model.

The time it takes to print something in 3D depends on the size of the project, Ranjan said. Generally, for something three centimetres tall, it takes about two hours.

Ranjan also helps out with the Sandbox’s media creation lab, which offers users access to software such as Adobe Creative Suite, Photoshop and Illustrator. To create music, Garageband and Ableton are also available, and there are two synthesizers on-site for students to produce their own music. “If you have any idea, or if you think about a cool project and say ‘I want to do this, but how can I do this?’ We can help you get started with your idea,” Ranjan said.

Daron Kasbar

When Daron Kasbar is not studying software engineering, he comes to the Technology Sandbox to work on his electric longboard. Photo by Elisa Barbier

Daron Kasbar is also a regular at the Sandbox, where he spends his time building his own electric longboard. “It’s a fun project,” he said. “I didn’t do it for school. I did it mostly to help myself get around.” Kasbar is currently taking prerequisite courses in order to study software engineering at Concordia.

According to Kasbar, his electric longboard was inspired by Casey Neistat, a YouTuber from New York City who vlogs about electric longboards and skateboards. The electric longboards Neistat features on his YouTube channel are expensive, Kasbar said. “One board is around $1,000 to $2,000 minimum. I can’t afford it so I decided to make my own instead,” he said.

While Kasbar used some parts of his old longboard to create the new one, other elements, such as the enclosures for the electronic components and the motor, were made using the Sandbox’s 3D printers. “The wheels, the motor, the 3D printed parts, that’s all from me. The enclosures and all plastic parts that you see here came from my own 3D printing, and most of them are from my own designs,” he said.

Kasbar said building an electric longboard is not as complex as it seems. “It’s simple to build. You can do it on any longboard or skateboard. You just need a battery, an ESC (electric speed controler) and a motor,” he explained.

The longboard can go up to 30 kilometres an hour and can run for three straight hours at that speed. Kasbar also built in a crucial safety mechanism. “If there is a shortage of battery, the electric speed controller will plug itself out of the battery so that it doesn’t overheat” he said.

For Kasbar, the Sandbox is one of his favourite places at Concordia. “I can be myself and share my creativity with anyone,” he said. “The people here will either improve my ideas or understand what I’m talking about—I feel comfortable sharing my ideas here.”

Student Life

How immersive technology and culture can help create a better future

 Creative director and co-founder of ALLFUTUREEVERYTHING (AFE), Monika Bielskyte (left), during a panel discussion at C2 Montreal alongside interviewer and executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada, Hugues Sweeney (right). Photo by Kirubel Mehari.


C2 Montreal invited creative director, Monika Bielskyte, to discuss the future of virtual reality

C2 Montreal is an international conference that gathers visionaries and innovative thinkers from around the world for a three-day event filled with panel discussions based on creativity and commerce. This year’s edition of the event, which ran from May 23 to 25, featured a talk given by Monika Bielskyte on virtual reality (VR) technology and how it might help create a better future.

Bielskyte is the founder of ALLFUTUREEVERYTHING (AFE), a company that designs and builds futuristic virtual worlds using computer-generated simulations of three-dimensional images that people can physically interact with. For example, the company creates simulations of how cities will look 50 years from now.

Bielskyte is a creative director at AFE, specializing in immersive technology such as augmented reality, a technology that uses goggles to superimpose computer-generated images on a user’s view of the real world. She also works with mixed reality, which merges the real and virtual world to produce new environments, and she creates VR prototypes.

For Bielskyte, creating these futuristic virtual worlds offers a way to possibly change our future.“Why I am interested in speaking about the future is because it gives us this necessary distance to look at the present with fresh eyes,” she said during her C2 Montreal talk. “But ultimately, it’s always about the choices that we are making today because there are no answers, only choices.”

According to Bielskyte, the prototypes designed and created using immersive technology and media can have a direct impact on our culture—which influences our reality and eventually our future. And although artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a more common component of immersive technology, she said, it doesn’t really help improve our world or our future. “We’ve been designing into AI the failures of humanity,” she said. “So our AI will fail as we fail.”

For this reason, Bielskyte designs virtual futures that depict how culture and humanity can be utilized to improve the world. “I am interested in showing how cultures of the world can cohabit and enrich each other rather than fighting each other,” she said. This idea of cohabitation and collaboration has been a focus of Bielskyte for a long time.  “From a very young age, I realized that everything is truly connected,”she said. “What interests me is to find how cultures affect each other, because no culture is self-contained.”

The idea that technological innovation without humanitarian revolution leads to a dystopian future is part of what drives Bielskyte’s focus on culture in her virtual prototypes of the future.“Technological change is much easier than cultural change, but if culture doesn’t change, nothing does,” she said. “We’ve been a little too focused on technology. Technology is important, but it’s truly just an extension of ourselves—it’s a tool. Technology is not good or bad, humanity is.”

During the talk, Bielskyte also tackled some misconceptions she said people often have concerning VR. “Technology/content companies haven’t done a great job in marketing this new technology and these new ideas,” she said. “[Virtual reality] is mostly perceived as an entertainment gimmick.” The ideas Bielskyte discussed about VR, in comparison, were not about entertainment, but rather about building a glimpse into the future and broadening our horizons with tangible experiences. VR is a world where people no longer sit in front of a computer to get a glimpse into another world, she said. Instead, they become immersed in other realities. “It’s about leaving the rectangular screens behind and stepping into a space where the world is our desktop,” Bielskyte said, describing a world where VR simulations would allow users to feel like they’re truly experiencing another reality.

According to Bielskyte, when immersive technology becomes the new common form of communication, it will cause major changes to our view of reality. “When most of the content we consume is no longer something that we watch, but truly something that we are in—is it just virtual? If it can cause real physical damage, is it only a simulation?” Bielskyte asked the audience. “[Mixed, augmented and virtual realities] are in some way as real and as impactful as real experiences might be.”

Bielskyte also spent part of her talk delving into the storytelling aspect of immersive technology. “People are only at the beginning of learning how to tell stories through interaction [with the audience], and VR does not exist without interaction,” she said.

At the moment, VR simulations are set up in closed environments, such as small rooms or booths, which Bielskyte said is an example of how old media habits are still being applied to this new medium. Instead, she encourages more creative thinking in the development of immersive technology—particularly VRs that interact more thoroughly with the real world. “The digital world will soon enough be meshed with the physical in such a way that our reality will be the transparency that we choose,” she said.

This distinction between reality and virtual reality, however, is more significant in the Western world, Bielskyte said. During her extensive travels, she has learned that places like Central and South America have different perceptions of what is real. “With my Colombian friends, we can shift the conversation about physical experience to dreams, to art, to shamanistic and psychedelic experiences in a blink of an eye—all of these things in their culture are real,” she said.

These varying perspectives of virtual reality are why Bielskyte said she enjoys teaching workshops on immersive creativity around the world. “I can definitely say that the students I had in places like Rio de Janeiro and in Bogotá come up with ideas for virtual reality that are not only equally good as the projects that are being pitched to me in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley—they are way more inspiring and way more interesting,” she said.

For Bielskyte, creativity is the key to developing immersive technology that will truly help humanity. “Humans are creative animals, and it’s only through creativity that we might find ourselves in a habitable future,” she said.  

Recently, some of Bielskyte’s work has extended to creating participatory story worlds for Hollywood, including the design and prototyping of the world in Ghost in the Shell. She is also working on a project called Future Nation, which aims to bring fictional worlds from Hollywood into the real world. “It’s about imagining these fictional futures for actual places, for real countries, cities and geographic regions—to help the policy-makers imagine how they could build a better future,” she said.

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