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About that night… 15×15, with Félix and Paul, Patrick Watson and Oculus Rift

April 15, 2014

Comfortably seated on the couch, I watch the young man seated at the piano. He’s not really playing, more like picking notes in search of a melody. The man is Patrick Watson and I’m sitting in his music studio. I turn my head to the right and see cables snaking all over the studio floor. To the left, I spot a large black dog sprawled on the floor – it’s Bilou! Patrick lights a cigarette. I can see it, I can hear it, it feels like I’m there, but the smell of burning tobacco never reaches my nose. An experience that’s half dream, half reality… Welcome to Félix and Paul‘s universe of the possible, brought to life by Oculus Rift.

Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, co-founders of the eponymous agency, were already well established in multimedia production when they launched ONCE in March 2014, a virtual reality production service. After a few test runs with Oculus Rift, the Patrick Watson experience was their first official production in this new medium.

We generally associate virtual reality with video games, and not with intimate and emotionally rich moments like the experience with Patrick Watson. Perhaps, suggested Félix Lajeunesse during his presentation, because the medium was largely influenced by science fiction, such as Star Trek, Tron, etc.

The experience with Patrick Watson is not what we imagine when we think about virtual reality, but the results are remarkable. Once the visor in on and the brain has become accustomed to the new reality, it feels like you’re watching a whole new medium emerge. A truly new way of “experiencing presence”, as Félix explained it. The eight minutes spent with Patrick Watson create an emotional connection, empathy. As a spectator, you can’t look away from the artist. And when, at one point, Patrick turns to look at the camera (that is, you), it’s impossible to feel nothing. It reminded me of the story of the first movie projection in 1895, when the audience fled the theatre in horror, thinking that a train was about to crash into them.

As with every new medium, virtual reality is mostly being developed by hackers and tinkers, who in the past, also pushed the progress of photography, radio, television and video gaming. “We had to throw off our film background, because it wasn’t useful for virtual reality. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, so we invented ways. In doing so, we began to realize the potential of virtual reality as a new medium,” related Félix. It was like listening to a guy discover the Internet for the first time.

The future of virtual reality is here and I’m excited to be experiencing it. To read the reactions of others who also attended the first 15 x 15 event, visit the French version of this blog post.