There’s been a void of cultural experiences this pandemic. Travel restrictions stopped tourists from visiting new cities and seeing renowned pieces in classic institutions. In Toronto, we lost opportunities to lose ourselves in a gallery, to wander neighbourhoods, and to discuss art with new people — and who knows if health restrictions will once again resurface to limit capacity in venues in public spaces. Virtual reality (V.R.) and augmented reality (A.R.) technologies are changing that. In this city, especially, startups are working to make art, history and culture more accessible and immersive.

Putting Toronto on the map

Toronto-based startup Driftscape, produces a mobile app that allows users to view historical information or arts-based content associated with their current location. The app is free, and Driftscape’s partners (government agencies, tourism boards and museums) pay for their content to live on the company’s app. There are two views — a map mode to see what attractions are close by, and an A.R. mode, which lets users see how far they are from points of interest via their phone’s camera. Within, there are self-guided audio historical tours. “There are great tours from First Story that focus on the city’s Indigenous history,” says Chloe Doesburg, Driftscape’s co-founder and CEO. “Depending on where you are, you can always take a look around and find something interesting.” In 2020, Doesburg participated in the Canadian Film Centre’s Fifth Wave Initiative, a program that supports women-led ventures in digital media, which helped her refine Driftscape’s offerings.

Another one of Driftscape’s tours, created in partnership with ArtworxTO, educates users about street art in neighbourhoods such as Kensington Market, North Etobicoke and Agincourt. Users listen to audio recordings that give the low-down on murals and instalments along their chosen route. Recordings provide context behind public art, as well as information about the artists. Exploring Toronto’s neighbourhoods armed with Driftscape’s tours means becoming more mindful of one’s surroundings — it makes things that are typically ignored (like murals and sculptures and plaques) into destinations.

Driftscape co-founder and COO, Dan Pronovost, says that platforms such as his empower users to rediscover their surroundings — it’s why his company added A.R. and gamification experiences to the app early on. And Driftscape now has contracts with clients throughout Canada, bringing arts education to a wide audience. Some of the startup’s recent offerings include virtual tours to celebrate Black History Month in Chatham-Kent, and a deal with Tourism North Bay.

“A.R. gives people a new lens to discover what’s already there,” Doesburg says. “It’s a tool to help make destinations easier to find, and draw people who might not have sought them out in the first place.”

Virtual reality is the new reality

Another graduate of CFC’s Fifth Wave Initiative, Art Collision, brings V.R. to various organizations, artists, art dealers and commercial galleries to improve their digital presence — anything from updating websites to providing e-commerce. Each client that Art Collision works with is different, and the company recommends which V.R. tools would suit the project best. “This tech provides new opportunities for people to see and experience art,” says Candice Houtekier, the company’s founder and director. “I feel that art is becoming more like an experience.”

Art Collision also works with another Toronto-based company, Art Gate, to build V.R. galleries that “push boundaries” of viewing, says Houtekier. “You can present a new medium or you can increase the presence of an artwork by putting it in a certain context and talking about it. You can even organize gallery tours and openings and artist’s talks.”

Anna Hudson, a professor of art history at York University, created a V.R. exhibition early in the pandemic with her students using Art Gate to explore the process of curating. When in-person life disappeared, she looked to virtual curation. While Hudson’s students were “suspicious of the platform” at first, because of the tech’s commercial element, they soon realized it was an opportunity to reach global audiences. Rather than be confined by geography, Hudson’s students invited people from around the world to participate and attend. They used Art Gate to create a V.R. panel discussion and a tour of the exhibit. And, thanks to the technology, featured artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory was able to join from Iqaluit. “There were some glitches, like people getting stuck in portals,” says Hudson. (Imagine an avatar trapped in a wall or floor who must then leave the virtual show and re-enter.) “But it was a way to get inside an alternative worldview. Even though the geographical distance was great, we collapsed it.”

The future of the future of art

The potential of V.R. and A.R. in museums is being explored by educators and interpretive planners, according to Hudson, who also notes that visiting museums is largely a “passive physical engagement.” Many people who visit an exhibit might be unfamiliar with the work, but technology can bring together people and curators to gain a deeper understanding.

And while, in theory, technology should be able to collapse geography and make exhibits accessible to anyone, there are still barriers that make virtual experiences inaccessible. As the pandemic taught us, even something as seemingly equalizing as online school can expose inequities, such as a lack of internet access, or even a lack of physical space to study at home. “Various technologies pose the same challenges as physical curation. They have the opportunity to reach more people, but how will we get people to engage?” asks Hudson. “It’s as Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory said to my students: ‘Unless curation becomes about relationship building and the maintenance of relationships, then technology won’t make a difference.’”

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