BY Hunter Walwaski & Angélica Rameau-Galette
While Julie Tseng mainly visits Montreal for things like concerts and to spend time with her friends, the Montréal en Histoires projections that grace walls around downtown and the Old Port have made a lasting impression on her.
“I was out walking around and noticed a movie playing on the side of a building and I had to stop and watch,” Tseng says.
The Montréal en Histoires Cité Mémoire exhibit features over 20 films, which teach viewers about different aspects of Montreal’s history, such as the 1849 burning of the parliament, or the Great Peace of Montreal.
“I thought I really wanted to see more of these and I wished Toronto did this,” Tseng adds. “As a person from a city with lots of boring grey concrete walls, I am very envious!”
Montréal en Histoires is one of the largest augmented reality exhibits in the city. The term applies to any experience that enhances the physical world of users through technology, specifically by focusing on one of the five senses.
Montréal en Histoires is one of the flashier augmented reality exhibits, given the bright lights, audio companion that tells listeners about the many projections, and GPS tracking.
A simpler example of augmented reality would be the tours offered by Art Public Montréal, which guide visitors around parts of the city with informative podcasts about local art exhibits. Quebec is also home to MySmartJourney, a platform used to create non-contact guided tours in places like museums and parks.
Montreal is a hotspot for this growing trend. On March 15, the Canadian government announced a $2.6 million contribution to Montréal en Histoires to help ensure its presence in the city. On a wider scale, Montreal is home to more than 30 firms that invest in developing technological businesses that focus on trends like augmented reality and artificial intelligence. MT Lab is one of these firms that “incubate” developing businesses in the tourism, culture, and entertainment industry who need help commercialising their products.
“More and more companies are working more on the social VR aspect of seeing a destination before going to it,” says Benoît Vuignier, project manager at MT Lab.
Vuignier references Hoppin’ World as an example. It’s a Montreal-based company that offers users the ability to “teleport” to locations around the globe via a virtual reality headset, enabling them to explore the world from the comfort of their home.
“During the pandemic a lot of people wanted to see the destination or feel the destination before going to it,” Vuignier adds.
Sophie Mankowski is the lead artist behind Portrait Sonore, an augmented reality experience that guides listeners around Montreal’s architectural landmarks through ‘pocket documentaries,’ or podcasts on various subjects.
“The way we’ve designed the tool is that you should completely forget the phone and the medium so that you are 100 per cent on the site, I mean that’s really the idea,” Mankowski says.
These kinds of experiences offer a number of benefits, as users can be guided around the city at their own leisure, pause and replay informative recordings, and listen to perspectives from as many people as the creator wants.
“It’s quite a democratic way of transmitting information because it’s not only the point of view of the narrator,” Mankowski says. “It’s also that in relation to the different experts and artists or citizens who are taking part of the walk.”
This new augmented reality trend is gearing towards the direction of potentially replacing tour guides as a whole. At tourist hotspots like the Old Port, Montréal en Histoires creates new attractions, guides users around via GPS, and teaches them about the city’s history—all completely free of charge.
“It’s like a free mini history lesson,” Tseng adds.
Of course, this new technology creates some competition for traditional tours.
“I think I was worried when they first started coming out,” says Françoise Bâby, a Montreal tourist guide who started back in 2015. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, what’s going to happen to the human guide? But I think people, especially after the pandemic with no interaction, are craving that human interaction. We are social animals—your app’s not going to feed that need.”
Bâby works as a tourist guide full time, averaging one to three tours per week in the winter during the offseason, and sometimes hitting three tours per day during the summer.
“The human guide can’t be replaced by this type of augmented reality because your app or your experience isn’t going to tell you where their favourite wine bar is or favourite rooftop restaurant is,” she says. “Or that if you go to the AURA show at the Basilica, don’t sit at the front because the best seats are in the middle. You won’t get that from an app, you need a human.”
Bâby says that she doesn’t feel like her occupation has been replaced by augmented reality exhibits like Montréal en Histoires.
“I’m not bumping into many people using it and I’m not seeing my revenue go down because of it. […] It’s something that is complementary to a guided tour with an actual human guide,” she says. “I’m not worried for a good ten years, because humans like to be with humans.”
Vuignier echoes these thoughts. Rather than replacing tourist guides like Bâby, augmented reality tours can be implemented in more remote locations that may attract some tourists but not enough to justify having full-time human guides.
“With that technology, they give the chance to small regions to have a virtual avatar that can follow you in the city and give you advice, tips, historical moments on a region,” Vuignier adds.
While the advances of augmented reality have yet to encroach on what traditional tourist guides have to offer, the creators of these projects are ready to adapt to where the technology takes them.
“I would imagine that, if people are open to these kinds of experiences and learning how to use them and having positive experiences, I guess they’re going to take new habits,” Mankowski says.
Tseng summed up her thoughts on Montréal en Histoires.
“Every city has art and graffiti, but I find this much more appealing, it really grabs your attention and is more inclusive for everyone, especially new visitors. I didn’t care if I looked like a tourist or not, I was just so happy to be in Montreal again!”