Denys Lavigne Details How He’s Created An Oasis Of Immersive, Projected Media In Montreal
May 25, 2022 by Dave Haynes
One of the best things about projection mapping technology is its ability to completely fill a big space with immersive visuals. The resulting experiences can be good enough to become paid attractions.
There are now dedicated, ticketed venues devoted to immersive, projection-mapped experiences around the world, and one of the best is Oasis Immersion, a venue in downtown Montreal that was dreamed up by a guy who’ll be very familiar to the digital signage community – Denys Lavigne.
He started and ran Arsenal Media for many years – building up a creative shop that most years would all but sweep the digital signage awards programs it entered. Arsenal was ultimately acquired by the display technology firm Christie, and Lavigne continued working for them for about four years, before deciding to step away and chase a new dream.
That’s been a real journey. I had lunch with him years ago, in New York, when he laid out the rough concept for me. I did a walk-through of the venue back in 2019, when it was just a set of darkened rooms, months off from opening. Then COVID hit, and the launch plans were derailed by lockdowns. The concept and business clawed its way through the pandemic, and Oasis is open and thriving with experiences designed to both amaze and inspire.
I had a terrific catch-up chat recently with Denys.
Denys, can you tell me what Oasis is all about?
Denys Lavigne: Oasis Immersion is an immersive destination that was launched on February 25th, 2021 in Montreal. It’s within the Montreal convention center, and it’s really part of this new trend of immersion as a destination, similar to places like the Cathédrale in Paris, the Team Lab project in Tokyo have actually quite a few. So it’s really based on projection and audio, it’s a 25,000 square foot space structured in three galleries. There’s a cafe bar, there’s a boutique and there are two additional experiential areas. So I’m really proud of this project.
And this is right in the heart of Montreal, right?
Denys Lavigne: Right in the heart of Montreal, the Montreal convention center is located between the old Montreal area and the cultural district and the business district. So it’s within an area called the international district which bridges to many strategic areas within the city.
And this is, if I’m remembering correctly, because I’ve walked through this space with you, it was an old loading dock or something for the convention center?
Denys Lavigne: It was actually before a bus station, and it was transformed into a potential future exhibit area but the project never really came through so it was actually used as just a storage facility, and because of its location within the convention center, it wasn’t necessarily easy to use as a rental space, because most of the other areas’ rental rooms and conference space are on the upper floors. So it became a no man’s land, and when I was made aware that this area was just sitting there, I thought this could be a great place for this project. I had the immersive destination project in mind for a while, and this was the perfect timing and the perfect location to do it.
Yeah, you’re right across from some pretty good hotels and not far away from some other ones and obviously it’s a convention center, so there’s a ton of people flowing through there. It’s on a subway line on and on. So it seems kind of perfect.
Denys Lavigne: Absolutely. For us, the location in terms of the site itself was really important, and the other interesting aspect about the location, it helps us to diversify the business model around the project. So we do have, of course a more B2C angle with the immersive exhibits that we present to the audience, but we also have a B2B angle where the space can be privatized for different type of events and used as a another option in terms of the rental for spaces so it works out really well from so many angles.
This is one of these “experiences” where you’re going to walk in and with projection mapping, you’re just going to be totally immersed in whatever the theme is for that particular exhibition?
Denys Lavigne: Yes, so there’s a lot of different definitions about what is an immersive experience these days. I think VR industry will very often refer to these types of experiences as immersive experiences, and it is in a certain way. The way I define a real immersive experience is about stepping into this other world that is dynamic and putting the visitor in the middle of the story of the experience itself and the experience evolves and there’s a total immersion from an audio and video perspective.
So yes, it’s the type of experience where you walk around, it’s similar to a museum and that really helped us in terms of finally being able to open because initially the project was scheduled to open early June of 2020 and of course, we all know what happened, and we were able to reopen a bit sooner than some other cultural destinations because of the fact that people walked around the space like a museum. There’s no time limit. There is no official start to the show. You do have to buy a ticket to arrive at a certain time so that we can manage the traffic flow and limit waiting time at the entrance, but it’s really like a very free experience in terms of the way that you want to experience, the duration, and yes, you walk into every room and there’s 360 projections on the floors, and of course spatialized audio in every room, which is a really important thing that is often underestimated in terms of its importance within an immersive experience.
This has been quite a journey for you. As you mentioned, you plan to be open in Q2 2020, but then COVID hit but this is actually something that’s been in the works for what, two or three years prior to that?
Denys Lavigne: I was actually made aware of the site in the summer of 2018 and then the development process started from there. So yes, there was a process to it, and of course the pandemic added another layer of complexity to putting this project together. The past two years have been quite difficult, but we’re turning the corner and fortunately, it’s a good time to offer the audience this type of experience. I think there’s a lot of interest and these experiences can be so powerful, and I think if we continue to do a good job from a quality of experience perspective, then we have the feeling that the audience is listening, the audience is interested and it’s looking good for the future.
We had to go through this process to put the project together and roll through the difficulties of the pandemic. But now, things are stabilizing and we’re looking forward to build for the future.
When we talked about this well before you launched, you put a big premium on wanting to have very much thematically curated expositions that were built around an idea, as opposed to just having generative data artists put something up on these big canvases and make it flow and ooze and do whatever it was going to do. You want it to talk about particular topics like space, and so on.
Denys Lavigne: Yeah, specific topics, but also specific topics at the right time, and I think that speaks to the kind of the heritage that I have coming into the immersive world through the world of digital signage and having been exposed to the different types of projects where the essence of it is to show the right message, at the right place, at the right time and that mindset carried through this project, and for us, one of the interesting aspects was to look at building a curated programming that was relevant to present at a certain moment in time so the here and now angle for us is quite important, and how it connects through not necessarily the news of the day, but the bigger picture trends of the moment.
So this is how we approach our programming, allowing us to go in different directions. But staying relevant in terms of the timing of it, and also staying aligned with our DNA about using this media to share an optimistic perspective of life and use this media in a way that will inspire people, that will give them something that will stay within them after the exhibit hopefully, and just provide an uplifting perspective. This is really at the heart of this Oasis project, because the immersive media can be such a powerful experience that for us, the notion that it had to be relevant at that moment in time and provide a positive influence to our visitors was really important because both me and my co-founder and a dear friend, we’re big fans of rays and multimedia performances, and I think one thing that we noticed over time is that there was very often a lack of connection with the times, this lack of sometimes emotion, that it was visual exploration just to explore, and sometimes it was really interesting, but we thought that a curated approach that was both relevant and inspirational, and that touched people was where we wanted to be and how we wanted to use the media.
Have you developed a sense that the aspiration to strike an emotion with the people who are visiting, that’s working? Are you getting feedback that this was more than just visually interesting to them?
Denys Lavigne: Absolutely, and it’s been so rewarding to get that feedback from the audience. We often see people in rooms that are very touched, that actually show emotions. We have feedback on our social media. Artists get direct email and visitors share directly with the artists what they went through and the emotions, and now we’re absolutely where we want to be, and we want to continue to build on that.
We actually, as part of the process of getting better as a creative group and understanding the media, which is still quite a young media. We launched an initiative called the Direct French Translation, and we worked with a startup company that uses biometric tools to measure the impact of experiences from an emotional and cognitive perspective, and we did a preliminary phase last fall as part of our Unwind exhibits and the preliminary results are actually quite positive. So we have the declarative piece, feedback from the audience, feedback on social media and on surveys and direct messages to the artists are quite positive, but now we also have a data driven piece that starts to show, starts to establish that the people are reacting in a good way and we now have preliminary patterns, biometric patternss to support it.
If I went to Oasis immersion right now, what would be the shows that I’d see?
Denys Lavigne: So we recently launched our Spring/Summer programming, and there were a few elements that we launched. The first one is that we activated the notion of having multiple shows playing at the same time. So we currently have two choices of exhibits that visitors can choose from. Officially, we launched a large interactive floor in our main room, which is to my knowledge, one of the largest permanent interactive floors in North America. We pre-launched it in February, but officially launched it as part of the spring/summer programming. We currently have two exhibits, the Recharger/Unwind, which is a sensory experience in the world of generative arts, but structured as a wellness experience. We’re extending that show because it’s been a big success for us. The show was originally launched last fall, but since there was still interest we’re continuing with that. But our new main show is called Van Gogh distortion, and this is the first time that we are doing an exhibit featuring a painter and it’s really about acknowledging the world phenomena that has come out of this union of the medium of immersion, and the world of painters and Van Gigh was a key figure in that movement, and we did it.
We produced a show that is aligned with the spirits of Oasis that goes along in terms of the positive, inspirational angle, but also best practices in terms of how we feel a show like that needs to be produced because we all have seen some of these shows around the world, and some of them, I feel lack depth in terms of the experience itself. The way that we work with the painter, artwork and create a powerful, immersive experience where we actually put the people in the middle of the experience and that we use sound in a good way. For us, the painters shows we would have liked to see more around the world, and again it’s an acknowledgement of that global phenomenon that has emerged from this union between immersion and painting.
So in essence there’s a big public demand. The feet are going through these places where they have these touring exhibitions for Van Gogh or whoever it is, and you could ignore it, or you could surrender to it to some degree, and build something that you think really does the job well, as opposed to just very large projections of still paintings?
Denys Lavigne: Yeah, you’re right. We just acknowledged that there was a phenomenon. We acknowledged that there was interest, and I think one of the great aspects about this is that it has helped expose this new type of entertainment to a very large audience, and as the industry evolves, I think the expectations in terms of the quality, in terms of the element of surprise, people have more and more expectations.
So we felt it was the right time to push the boundaries with these types of shows, and we felt Van Gogh was the main painter that activated this movement, and in terms of the timing, we also thought it was really interesting because one of Van Gigh’s strengths is about showing, sharing the emotion and in the smaller things of life, of our immediate world of nature. He brought emotions to things that we take for granted and we felt there was also an interesting link with what we went through over the past two years, being isolated and the pandemic, and just how we’ve reconnected to our immediate world nature, other people, the way that we view these elements and the role that they have in our lives, we thought that the timing of this from this angle was also really interesting to show and made it more relevant to focus on Van Gogh for this project.
And I guess it’s something of a gateway drug as well that you could get people come to your venue to see this who, if you just had the other show on, might be a little too out there for their unfamiliar minds, but if they even get them in to see this they’ll go, “Oh, that was really interesting. I’ll come back!”
Denys Lavigne: Yep, there was definitely an aspect of, we’re still a new destination within Montreal, and I think it’s part of the process to ensure that we get known to a larger audience, and there was a bit of that for sure, in our decision. But the main thing was about the here and now angle, the phenomena, and we’ve already done a good job building an audience that is really grand public, and even for Recharge/Unwind exhibit that features generative art, it’s actually quite surprising and quite satisfying to see that we have people from all ages attended it and it’s much more balanced than what we expected, and I think this speaks to the interest of people and this new type of entertainment, and we want to continue to build on that for sure.
What are the creative demands involved in this? Can you say for the Recharge/Unwind material, can you say to a generative data artist, “here’s the resolution, here’s what you’re working with, go!” Or do you have to train them?
Denys Lavigne: We do train some people, because again it’s still an emerging media. It’s not like there are thousands and thousands of destinations similar to ours in the world right now. So the pool of expertise is limited, but it exists, and yes, part of the briefing is similar to more of a traditional digital signage content, or experiential media experience. There are technical specifications and are parts of the brief and there are also creative specifications that are shared with the artists.
So Oasis immersion is not only just an operator of a site because of my background and my interests, we’ve also put together an internal creative team that works on developing the curating approach and the creative alignment for our projects. Each artist is informed about, what is the intent? What is the big picture of the exhibit? What is the expectation, in terms of his content and the role his content will play within the sequence, the journey that we want to create for our audience? So we are quite specific about that. And in terms of the artists, we usually select artists that we feel are the best fit for the type of content that we want to achieve. Most of the time these artists are experienced, but we’ve also worked with emerging artists. You know in our first exhibit we developed an experience with a young YouTuber who had, when I told him that we were going to develop an immersive experience together, you said what’s an immersive experience and his expertise was really about just producing video. He was 21 years old, a kid that had really good talent as a director, as a storytelling artist but we felt that he could produce something that would be a bit more powerful, a bit more complex. We supported him and so we see our role also as supporting artists and that’s why we have an experience team internally to play that role, and sometimes, the type of relationship we have with different artists varies with their expertise. But we certainly see that part of our role within the industry is to ensure that we have more and more people that understand the realities of creating powerful experiences for this type of media so that the industry can grow in the long term.
Do you see business applications for this? We’ve seen in the digital signage world, all kinds of corporate lobbies, all the way to airports adding immersive elements to it so that there’s an entire lobby that’s surrounded by LED or other ones that are using projection, if it’s dark enough and so on.
Do you see the time when the sort of work and thinking that you’re doing for a destination could be applied to something that’s a venue like a building lobby?
Denys Lavigne: There’s probably an extension that could happen. The fact that I’m here doing this project is a cycle of the work that I’ve done in the past for immersive lobbies and different types of experiential installation, and this has led me to do this project. I think it could work the other way around. As soon as you have digital assets, you can basically do whatever you want. I think then it becomes about, what’s the type of experience and for what audience, but for example, we do have B2B applications within Oasis immersion, and I could see a client who has privatized the space and created a custom experience for the people that will attend the event. I could certainly see a client using these assets, repurposing them to create a spin-off and adapted version for another space for sure.
I think we will eventually get to that because the logic of return on investment or return on experience willlikely lead to that but there will definitely be adjustments in terms of the storytelling, the nature of the experience because of the way that people will consume the experience.So when you are totally immersed within a space, from a storytelling perspective, you can go at it from a certain angle. If it’s just a lobby experience and there are other things happening and you have different objectives, then there’s going to have to be a certain storytelling adaptation.
You’ve alluded two or three times to your background. For those people who are listening and don’t know who you are, could you tell the story of Arsenal Media?
Denys Lavigne: Sure. So I founded Arsenal Media in 1999, I believe, and I created the agency initially as a content marketing agency, and when we started, we were actually doing custom publishing, so doing branded magazines for clients, at that moment, it was a big trend. And then we evolved into creating content for the web, because the initial internet revolution was really driven by programming companies, but there were not a lot of design and content companies, and so we extended our expertise to content marketing on the web, and eventually we were exposed to digital signage and we completely transited our operation and focused on digital signage because we felt that was the ideal platform where we could merge creativity and technology and building a relationship and providing value for the audience.
The reason why I started the company as a content marketing agency is because I always thought. you could build a more meaningful and long-term relationship with the consumer if you actually provided value versus just a commercial advertising. Traditional commercial advertising will deliver a certain type of result and certainly has its role within the bigger picture of marketing strategies, but always felt that the content marketing actually provided something useful, either from an information perspective or quality of experience perspective, there was something that the consumer had in return. So that was the foundation of it and when we were exposed to digital signage, it was similar to the internet in the sense that they were not a lot of creative companies at the beginning, and we saw this as a great opportunity and started to focus on digital signage right until 2014, when the agency was acquired by Christie digital and we joined the Christie company. I was there for four years. I led the experiential project division and we did projects all over the world.
For me, personally and professionally, this was such an inspirational time. I have so many good souvenirs, so many great learnings and great projects, and it allowed me to continue to push further on the experiential side and eventually led me to focusing on immersion, to really focus on the experiential side of it. But it’s the sum of these experiences and learnings, and I’m really proud of my digital signage roots to a certain extent because it helped me understand context and sharing the right message at the right time, what that meant, and adding an experiential feel and understanding the impact of architecture within the space and the configuration and how people moved within the space. So all of these were great learnings that allowed me to do this project.
The part that you humbly left out is that you guys werewere sweeping the awards, Arsenal Media won a whole pile of awards for creative through the years.
Denys Lavigne: Yeah, we were so fortunate to get the support of the industry, and I think that speaks to the commitment of our team who try to contribute positively to this media, and that’s how we approached it, bringing value to the consumer and trying to raise the bar in terms of best practices from a quality of design and relevancy, and I believe in the media and I think it deserved from us as creatives and strategists that we put our best foot forward every time, and we always were in this evolving mode of, how can we do better and how can we push the boundaries, and how can we make this media more efficient for our clients? I think the support that we’ve got and the accolades from the industry speak to my team’s commitment to achieve that and we are quite proud of the results, and again, the accolades that we’ve received from the industry.
Ten or fifteen years ago you were doing conferences in Montreal and very politely yelling at people, “it’s the content, stupid” that in the industry at that time was still and for a long time after it still focused on technology, as opposed to what’s actually on the displays. Is it heartening now that you’re somewhat detached directly from the direct digital signage industry to see the amount of really kick ass content that you’re now finding on screens?
Denys Lavigne: Absolutely. There’s great content. I think the aspect that I’m most proud to see the industry do now is just being more smart in the way that we plan for these projects, the way that we set up displays, the way that we think about the media from a business perspective, architectural perspective, the integration of this media with the rest of the marketing ecosystem, the rest of the brand ecosystem. So I’m really proud to see where the industry is at, in terms of the level of refinement of the work in general because yes, the quality of the content is really important but through my time in digital signage, I think quickly we realized that it was also about the strategy itself and the right selection of equipment for the right context, and how the media wasn’t just this extra terrestrial piece within the marketing or branding ecosystem of the clients. But it actually played a role and was connected and made sense and how it was used.
So the integrated marketing or branding approach that I see now, the quality of the executions from architectural perspective and content perspective is really impressive to see, and I’m proud to see where the industry is at today.
All right. That’s a great place to leave it. Congratulations on Oasis Immersion and great to catch up with you.
Denys Lavigne: Thank you, Dave. Always a pleasure.