I was a lizard fleeing a dinosaur.
I was a dancing robot surrounded by apes. I was a cell that witnessed the cosmos exploding to life. I was a London rioter fighting the police and losing.
These computer-generated hallucinations are part of the Lucid Realities exposition at Montreal’s Phi Centre. The expo is a collection of pieces that blur the lines between art, film, video games and, well, reality itself.
To experience most of the installations, visitors have to wear a pair of virtual reality goggles. Having never experienced VR myself, I assumed that once they locked me into the device it would trigger a series of horrors straight out of a David Cronenberg film.
The whole setup seemed like vintage Cronenberg — a nondescript room full of strangers about to hook their brains up to a piece of futuristic, mind-altering technology. What could possibly go wrong?
And while I love a good head explosion as much as the next reporter, I must admit the thought of my consciousness being swallowed by a machine felt a little heavy for a weekday morning. My fate seemed especially grim after I informed the Phi Centre’s head of communications that this was my first time inside this virtual reality.
“It’s your first time?” said Myriam Achard, grinning. “You’re in for quite the experience.”
One of the exhibit’s directors, Charles Melcher, did little to assuage my fears.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “What you’re seeing today is the medium in its earliest stages.”
The fear took hold. Full disclosure: I’m still alive and, as far as I can tell, everything is normal again (though there is a bit of a nagging itch at the base of my skull lately).
Any reluctance I had about the VR experience melted after a few moments inside its computer-generated universe. The Life of Us piece, in particular, taps into the potential of the medium — taking users along for a ride that simulates earth’s evolution.
The curators hooked me and another journalist up to our headsets and when I looked into this new reality, it appeared as though I’d mutated into a collection of cells. My fellow traveller was also just floating matter. Soon a series of explosions blasted us forward in time.
We became tadpoles and then we were reptiles, running across the desert with a Tyrannosaurus rex hot on our tails. The morphing continued: we were fire-breathing pterodactyls flying over an active volcano, gorillas sprinting across a meadow as we fended off ultra-aggressive monkeys.
Scene from Life of Us, a virtual-reality installation part of Lucid Realities, an exhibition currently on display at the PHI Centre. PHI Centre
The experience culminated with the apes turning into businessmen dashing through a drab cityscape. When the city finally collapsed into itself, we became robots in a discotheque dancing alongside cells, tadpoles, apes and dinosaurs.
“What the hell just happened?” I asked, to no one in particular.
Beyond the horror-based reservations I harboured about VR, my concern was that the medium seemed gimmicky. And while some of the exhibit’s pieces were a little glitchy and not quite as fleshed out as Life of Us, it’s clear that VR has incredible potential.
At its best, the medium immerses you into a perspective you otherwise couldn’t begin to imagine. One piece simulates colourblindness on an island in the South Pacific. Another has you assume the life of a tree in the rainforest — I’ll let you guess how that one ends.
The effect, in the end, leaves you questioning your senses and left me on the verge of hyperventilation more than once. It’s art in the sense that art is meant to elicit a reaction from its audience.
Some pieces are still in the prototype phase — like the 3D film RIOT, which simulates crowd violence in London. Throughout your journey across a riot, facial recognition software reads your emotions and alters the story based on your reaction to the events you witness.
When I came upon a baton-wielding officer, the screen said “anger” and it caused the nice policeman to strike me with his baton (thus ending my short-lived experience as a English rioter). I smiled when it was over.
“You don’t look surprised,” an English-accented woman said.
“I guess I must have some sort of deep-seated problem with cops,” I replied.
The woman, who created the project, is London-based filmmaker Karen Palmer. She says she was inspired by the rioting that took hold in sections of England and Wales in 2011. The violence erupted in Tottenham after a police officer shot a young black man to death.
The beauty of Palmer’s work is that it turns your brain into a remote control. Having been in my share of riots, I tried to project an icy facade but the machine picked up on the rage simmering beneath.
“You know, I was at a riot in Victoriaville once where some of the rioters took a break and ordered pizza,” I told Palmer.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“No, it really happened. One group of people kept fighting the cops and another took a break to eat pizza and drink soda. And then they went back to the front lines.”
“That’s unreal,” she said.
Like so many of the projects on display at the Phi Centre, RIOT messes with your sense of perspective. It’s one thing to try to imagine yourself as someone or something else but it’s quite another to have that reality projected just a few inches from your retina.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is where VR’s greatest potential lies. Of course these breakthroughs should be met with skepticism. We should seek to understand what it is about us that seeks to create a simulated world when the one that stands before us so often needs our full attention.
But man was it ever trippy to turn into a dancing robo