Immersive Attractions: Walls As Book Covers

Three Montréal-based studios weave digital technology into physical spaces to immerse visitors in modern visions of the past.

Prosaic boilerplates such as “the past comes alive” are overused when promoting tourist attractions, but in the case of the following three projects that saying rings true, and not because of overly enthusiastic tour guides in historic garb. Instead, these projects are using cutting-edge technology in ways that should make interior designers take notice, if what they want is users moving through their spaces to be physically and emotionally engaged and leave with lasting impressions.

Immersed in Architecture

In a city already bursting with tourist attractions, the newest landmark in Niagara Falls utilizes light and sound but not in the way one might expect given the notoriously gaudy Clifton Hill, just a short walk away. Produced by the creative minds at Thinkwell Studio Montréal, the attraction is called Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed and shines a light on the historic Niagara Parks Power Station thanks to a dazzling array of interactive visuals and a musical score.

Currents makes use of 23 laser phosphor projectors on five distinct surfaces (wall + floor + three generators) and uses 3D mapping plus 32 channels of interactive audio content fed through 35 speakers to create an immersive environment. Reactive elements use proprietary projector autocalibration and an interactive tracking system with six infrared blasters, and architectural LEDs are installed throughout the station, accenting the building highlights with complementary lighting and atmospheric effects. (Images courtesy of Niagara Parks)

The first major power station on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, the former Canadian Niagara Power Company Generating Station harnessed the energy of Horseshoe Falls and turned it into electricity for over 100 years until being decommissioned in 2006. Now, guests explore interactive and educational exhibits throughout the largely untouched 600-foot generator floor during the day. Then at 6:30 p.m. the show begins, spanning 30 minutes and split into three acts: the first shows the geological creation of the Falls with water rushing down the 60-ft. walls of the station and freeze onto the floor; the second depicts the creation and function of the station itself; and the final act takes a rather existential trip through electricity itself.

“It’s really almost like we’re treating the space as a playground,” says Émilie Grenier, creative director at Thinkwell Studio Montréal. “We want people to walk around and we want people to keep being surprised and entertained and touched by the tiny stories that they trigger themselves by just being present and engaging with the space.”

Immersed in Art

In Toronto, it’s not architecture but rather famous art that is getting the immersive treatment. In the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s North Hall is Beyond Monet: The Immersive Experience, billed as one of “the most immersive art experience yet to be brought to life.” Created by French-Canadian creative director Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montréal-based Normal Studio, Beyond Monet is a three-part experience combining traditional static educational panels and hanging art with music, sound effects, scenography and projection in a series of oval-shaped rooms designed to mirror the floor plan of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The three-part Beyond Monet attraction starts in a separate room with panels of biographical information and explanations of the major elements of Monet’s work before guests enter the immersive portion of the experience. (Images courtesy of Beyond Exhibitions)

Produced in partnership with Paquin Entertainment Group and Toronto-based JL Entertainment, the exhibit covers 50,000 square feet and animates to a larger-than-life scale more than 400 paintings with over four-trillion content pixels in multi-directional projections, backed by an original score composed by Jean-Sébastien Coté. “This experience is all about guests embarking on a multi-sensory journey with Monet, through his artworks, in search of light,” says St. Amaud. “Constantly searching, with legendary passion and ardour, he was able to depict the ever-changing shifting of light. Our intent with this experience is to not only share Monet’s fascinating vision of the world but for audiences to rediscover his work from new and surprising perspectives.”

If Monet’s exhibit looks like one dedicated to another famous Impressionist, that is not a coincidence. Normal Studio is the creative force behind the show Beyond Van Gogh, currently making the city-to-city rounds, and which uses a similar palette of animated projections backed by a thundering musical score. These are not to be confused with other large-scale artist showcases like Immersive Van Gogh, Immersive Klimt Revolution or Frida: Immersive Dream, all produced by Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive.

Immersed in a City

Another turnkey immersive media studio based in Montréal went south of the border to deliver a new multimedia visitor experience at One World Observatory, located atop One World Trade Center in New York. “This project is, at its core, a celebration of New York and New Yorkers, and we focused the narrative on lower Manhattan because of its fundamental role in New York City’s rich history,” says Alexandre Simionescu, CEO of the award-winning studio Float4. “As a narrative backdrop, the theme of travel is weaved throughout the four unique digital interventions.”

Before heading up in SkyPods to view New York City from 100 storeys high, visitors are greeted in their own language, then interact with visuals that move as they move to learn about the history of Manhattan and the World Trade Center through large digital displays. (Images courtesy of One World Observatory)

The interventions he refers to include The Global Welcome Center, where visitors are greeted with content in their own language on a monumental interactive visual installation wall; The Reflection Screen gives visitors a 3D bird’s eye view of One World Trade Center; the Horizon Grid presents a brief history of lower Manhattan by transforming historical footage into an animated series of iconic events and locations as if they were viewable from the observatory; and The Portal Wall, which presents a contemporary view of the World Trade Center Plaza including future developments such as 5 World Trade Center and the Perlman Center for the Arts.

“This project started at the onset of the pandemic and we had to adjust our creative approach swiftly,” said Simionescu. Due to travel restrictions between Canada and the United States, Float4’s work was accomplished almost exclusively from remote locations.

These three immersive attractions are examples of a growing awareness that as technology reshapes the interactions between people and spaces they inhabit – from augmented reality to interactive digital infrastructure to walls and floors that appear to move with the user – there is a justifiable concurrent expansion in our expectations from designers whose job is to advance the possibilities of our experiences within these spaces.

“Montreal combines world class academic institutions that nurture amazing technical and artistic talent. The population’s cultural diversity is also a key factor in my opinion that contributes to the creative ecosystem. There is also the government that plays a role in supporting culture and art as well as research and development. Lastly, I like to think that the long winters contribute to creating an environment that stimulates creativity!” said Simionescu.