On April 15, 2019, the Notre-Dame Cathedral suffered a devastating fire. I recently had a chance to see a 360-degree VR documentary by Targo called The Man Behind Notre-Dame, which follows the Rector-Archpriest of Notre-Dame Patrick Chauvet and his mission to restore the crumbling roof of Notre-Dame. The VR documentary takes you to places that you could never go to on a public tour of Notre-Dame, including the roof to survey the damage. This VR piece can now be seen in an entirely new context now that the fire has caused a lot of the roof of the cathedral to collapse, potentially even sections that were featured in the documentary.
I talk with Targo co-founder Victor Agulhon at the Laval Virtual conference in Laval, France about their process of capturing this story. They focused on telling the story of Notre-Dame Rector-Archpriest Patrick Chauvet through many of the different locations and contexts throughout the Notre-Dame cathedral. Targo is producing a series of stories that are centered around significant cultural locations, but all centered through personal narrative. This VR documentary offers some of the most recent immersive footage of the cathedral before this latest tragedy, and it serves as a form of preservation of cultral heritage. There’s also a role for using immersive media to capture the history and stories of specific locations, especially since Agulhon himself was a tour guide who has spent been to these types of tourist locations telling the stories of these places. He talks about how exciting it was for him to be able to get access to all of the places that he knew were off limits, but to also capture the as much of the place and stories of Archpriest Chauvet as they could.
In light of all that’s happened with Notre-Dame in the last 24 hours, then this work has given us new insights into the power of virtual reality as a way to document and capture aspects of our cultural heritage. Physical objects are all unfolding in a process of a beginning, middle, and end, and this event might help people start to think about the preservation of these cultural artifacts while they’re still around. But also so that we may more fully enjoy the full breadth and complexity of these lived experiences of these places while we still have access to them. While VR may be able to capture some level of symbolic representation, then these simulations are going to have a really hard time of capturing the full qualia of what it’s like to be in a location. Perhaps it’ll be through the differences that people have of VR experiences of Notre Dame and their own embodied memories that they’ll start to have a deeper appreciation of that qualia gap of virtually-mediated experiences of physical locations.
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