We hold out our phones and peer at our tiny screens as we walk on the slippery wooden boardwalk at the New Westminster Quay. In the distance, I see the present-day Fraser Surrey docks, but through my phone, I see Kwantlen women on the banks of the Fraser River circa 1903. I stop in front of a still-working paddle wheeler and silvery salmon leap through the air. Instructions on the screen tell us to try to catch them, and we poke our fingers at the glass.
“I failed my mission. I didn’t get all my fish,” jokes Brenda Fernie, CEO of the Seyem’ Qwantlen Business Group and the great, great, great granddaughter of Whattlekainum, the Kwantlen chief who greeted us in graphic form as we started on this adventure. We’re playing The Tireless Runner, an interactive storytelling mission on the augmented reality platform known as QuestUpon. Tireless Runner (the English meaning of Kwantlen) is a game and a history lesson—“edutainment,” as its developers have called their version of augmented reality—that allows users to interact with animated figures, take on challenges, and time travel, all while learning about the Kwantlen First Nation on its traditional, unceded territory.
Less than a year ago, the general population might not have grasped this experience. Fernie and I laugh about this as a grizzly bear, an animal that used to inhabit the pre-metro meadows of the Fraser Valley, wanders across our screens. But in July 2016, United States computer game company Niantic unleashed Pokémon Go to the world, and suddenly millions of people were marching around, their phones held out like dowsing rods, catching animated creatures that popped out from behind buildings. The concept gives The Tireless Runner a more familiar (and even trendy) context.
That said, even if people wandering along the quay are aware that they are in Coast Salish territory, few are likely to know that the Kwantlen Nation, whose main reserve is near Fort Langley, once had a village here too. Even a visit to the Fraser River Discovery Centre won’t reveal what Chief Whattlekainum points out in his Tireless Runner greeting: his people occupied territory from Richmond to Mission along the river, and high up Golden Ears mountain and into Stave Lake. New Westminster is on the site of sχəyəməɬ, one of the Kwantlen Nation’s largest pre-contact, year-round settlements, and is directly across from a seasonal fishing village at qəyqə́yt on the Surrey side of the river.
Fernie and her co-workers had been searching for a different way to engage people with their nation’s history. Then one day, Seyem’ Qwantlen president Tumia Knott met Tammy Meyers and Miles Marziani from QuestUpon at an event in Mission. Meyers and Marziani are the owners of this emerging B.C.-based tech company and have been producing experiential games since 2011. They were demonstrating one of their first quests, Legend Tracker, which includes encounters with legendary figures like the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and Ogopogo in the Okanagan. When a Sasquatch walked across Knott’s screen in downtown Mission, she was hooked, and talked with the creators about building a quest for the Kwantlen.
“We wanted to start by offering the app in New West, because so many people already come to the quay,” Fernie says. She hopes that if families are looking for something to do, they will wander the waterfront and interact with the past, including travelling back through time to experience the pivotal meeting between Chief Whattlekainum and explorer Simon Fraser in 1808.
“I can send you an eagle and you’d see it flying around in your office. Or I can send you a message that you have to go to a specific place to get.”
QuestUpon was named the most innovative entertainment company at the 2015 NextBC awards, and has a lock on providing experiences at historical sites and small cities in B.C. Besides Mission, users can play games in Kelowna, the Yale Historic Site, Hat Creek Ranch, and the tiny but historic community of Hope. And now, QuestUpon is getting calls from brands like the Disney Corporation, whose managers have finally grasped what geolocative augmented reality can do.
“I can send you a text that has augmented reality in it. I can send you an eagle and you’d see it flying around in your office. Or I can send you a message that you have to go to a specific place to get,” Meyers says. She has done demonstrations where a UFO descends and beams unsuspecting bystanders up, then turns them into unicorns that fly around. “It’s a pretty huge platform and network,” she explains. “Our goal is to position ourselves with partners who can scale en masse.”
It’s amazing to think that a small B.C. company, not to mention a tiny First Nation, is at the forefront of this innovative technology. Vancouver has long been in the digital gaming industry, but since I’m new to it all, I seek out Dr. Ray Hsu, founder of the Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality Working Group at the University of British Columbia. Hsu, a poet and UBC professor, has taken it upon himself to drag the university into the 21st century when it comes to innovative educational technologies. “When I first looked around to see who was thinking about VR [virtual reality] on campus, all I heard were crickets,” Hsu says wryly.
Now, there is an interdisciplinary team of faculty members, students, information technology units, and interested community members who talk about immersive technology and how it can be used or developed on campus. Hsu says Vancouver is perfectly poised to be part of the next wave of digital technology, thanks to the active and innovative mass of people here thinking about high tech. The city’s proximity to Silicon Valley also helps.
The current buzz is around how virtual and augmented reality will link to education. In all Hsu’s conversations with Vancouver’s techies and venture capitalists, he has learned that education is the market everyone is salivating for, because gamers constitute a limited pool. “All of them are small potatoes when you think about education,” says Hsu, “because education is everyone.”
I knock asteroids out of the way and find myself floating in front of the moon.
I meet Hsu in the atrium of the Life Sciences Centre at UBC, and he is excited to hear about The Tireless Runner’s ability to share history via augmented reality. But as I describe my experience, he stops. “Was this experience through a headset, or were you just looking through your phone?” he asks.
I admit it was the latter. “Have you ever experienced VR?” he asks. He’s talking full immersion. For him, augmented reality is Microsoft’s HoloLens, a headset that allows virtual 3-D mushrooms and robots to join you in your living room. Alternatively, virtual reality—with goggles on, ears covered with a surround-sound headset—is full immersion in another world.
It’s official. I’m hopelessly low-tech. Even Fernie has tried the new View-Master, a high-tech version of the old stereoscopic 3-D viewer with round slide reels (which I have used before—thanks, Grandpa, for showing me the Grand Canyon!). Fernie has played Ingress (Niantic’s first augmented reality game), and likes to stay on top of the latest technologies. I have barely downloaded a game onto my iPhone, let alone popped it into Google Cardboard to witness a train whistling in the distance. But Hsu offers to increase my awareness by inviting me to a demonstration at the VR Lab the following week.
Thanks to Google Maps (which I do know how to use), I find UBC Studios on the sprawling campus and am led into a small padded room. Hsu hooks me into a headset, and with my eyesight and hearing blocked, I am given two controllers.
“How do you feel about being underwater?” Hsu’s muffled voice reaches me through the equipment. “Bring it on,” I say. And all of a sudden, I’m in Finding Nemo. Bright tropical fish swarm past as I stand on the deck of a sunken ship. I reach out to touch them and boom: my hand hits the wall.
“Let me know if you feel uncomfortable at any time and we’ll get the equipment off,” says Hsu, just before a huge blue whale swoops to a stop in front of me and blinks. Next, I knock asteroids out of the way and find myself floating in front of the moon. Then I live my ultimate dream of walking like a giant over Google Earth landscapes.
When it is over, I have to agree with Hsu: we hadn’t been talking about the same thing at all. Creative types are on the move, he says, searching for the product that will make the virtual reality industry take off. Microsoft opened an office in Vancouver in July 2016 to explore the tech potential of the city; virtual reality movies have become all the rage at the Sundance Film Festival; even Destination British Columbia, our provincial tourism marketing agency, created a 360-degree experience to take viewers into the province’s wilderness.
I think back to my morning with Fernie. It had been so simple: we held our phones up to the skyline, and all the industrial clutter on the river vanished; several dugout canoes appeared, giving us a taste of the landscape from a time before settlers started to arrive in the Lower Mainland. “Our storytelling has always been shared orally, which we see is being lost in these modern times,” Fernie says. “We saw a need to adapt how we can share these stories and history.”
Fernie remembers her first time doing the quest. They were holding a launch party at the Fraser River Centre in April 2016, and everyone was excited to get out on the boardwalk. She got a photo of herself with Whattlekainum, and an elder pulled herself out of her wheelchair to take a selfie with an elk.
We held our phones up to the skyline, and all the industrial clutter on the river vanished.
“The majority of people use smartphones, so using mobile technology made sense to us,” says Fernie. Working with QuestUpon’s innovative technology gets people engaged while they learn. This is especially important for youth, she says, but also helps to raise a greater awareness of Kwantlen culture and history in the modern world.
The jury is still out on immersive technology. Some think every household will own a virtual reality headset in five years’ time, and that augmented reality immersion will allow users to look at an outfit on a passerby and find out where to buy the identical look. Others think the over-hyped technology might just disappear. And some worry that immersion in other worlds will further distort our expectations for real life and disassociate us from actual reality.
The Kwantlen, at least, haven’t put all their bets on new technologies. The Kwantlen Traditional Knowledge project is taking a more conventional path to storytelling, with an academic text as well as a coffee table book. And, Fernie points out, dozens of people a day also take advantage of an even more old-fashioned interactive offering each summer: “They take a walking tour in Fort Langley or Maple Ridge, with a real live community member.”