This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

Consul General Nick Baker

Nick Baker

Consul General, Montreal

8th November 2017 Montreal, Canada

Virtual Reality: A whole other world

Virtual hands holding a ball with 'A Colossal Wave!' text in blue in front

Forget sitting on your couch watching a flat screen. The next generation of audiovisual hardware puts you right in the action!  Wearing a headset you are completely immersed in a virtual world that you can interact with.  But this new technology can be applied to far more than video games or entertainment.

We recently brought a team from Innovate UK over to Montreal to check out what is happening in the sector here and identify potential partnerships for the UK. They were amazed. CAE, a local aerospace turned professional training company that invests in the UK, gave the team an insight into its potential.

CAE is using augmented reality (AR), a variant of VR, to simulate medical procedures for training surgeons.  Putting on their headset you can bring up a hologram of any organ in the human body and interact with it.  We had a go at placing a pacemaker on a heart, and could view inside the heart and hear it beating. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend being one of our patients, the technology is clearly going to revolutionise medical training.

Why is this happening in Montreal? The clustering of special effects and video game companies in Montreal, attracted by the city’s creative talent and Quebec’s tax breaks, means there is a pool of expertise here to build on.  A number of well-known companies from the UK, such as Cinesite Moving Picture Company and Framestore, who won an Oscar for the special effects on the film Gravity, are now well-established here and expanding.

So when we received a request from the city to help mark the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, we thought we’d showcase how the UK and Quebec can work together. The British Council managed the project and selected UK VR company, Marshmallow Lazer Feast, to work with two Quebec partners.  We added some funding from the GREAT campaign and there was some private sector support.

The result was “A Colossal Wave”, an interactive exhibit open to the public for 2 months in one of Montréal’s main squares. Those wearing the headset find themselves in a virtual water world flying over the ocean.  Another participant then climbs a tower and drops a bowling ball onto a copper dish.  This unleashes a virtual wave that plunges those wearing the headset underwater, where they meet mythical creatures.  The experience is an assault on the senses: visual, sound and touch.

The exhibit formed part of the all new km3 festival of public art. This was set up to celebrate Montreal’s 375th anniversary, which our new High Commissioner, Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque, inaugurated with the Mayor on her first visit to the city. It was a great way of demonstrating the creativity of both Montreal and the UK.

Other than wielding some soft power and helping Montreal celebrate its birthday, there was a clear trade and investment angle to this too.  We reckon the combined market for VR and AR to be about £4bn at the moment, but this is projected to grow to £90.5bn by 2020.  And of the 800 companies working in the sector, 150 are from the UK.  This is big business and by working together, the UK and Canada can win a big share of this. 

High Commissioner and Consul General posing with guest at A Colossal Wave event in Montreal

About Nick Baker

Nick took up his appointment as Consul General, Montreal in July 2014. Nick joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2001.