The French operator’s virtual reality (VR) tour of Notre-Dame serves as a window into the future of VR, with profits going towards the cathedral’s restoration
Since the Middle Ages, Notre-Dame de Paris has been one of the most celebrated and recognisable buildings in the world. A focal point of French history, the cathedral has played host to countless pivotal events, from the crowning of Henry VI of England as King of France in 1431 to the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor in 1804. For many, Notre-Dame represents not just the city of Paris, but the indomitable spirit of France itself.
Perhaps this is why, when a fire broke out on the evening of April 15 2019, images of the building engulfed in flame evoked such visceral sadness, not only within France but around the globe.
Now, four years on, in the midst of an extensive reconstruction process, French operator Orange is using VR to allow visitors to explore Notre-Dame throughout its history.
Orange’s ‘Eternal Notre-Dame’ was first launched in January 2022 in Orange’s facility in La Défense after two years of planning. It received around 5,000 visitors in the first six months and, after a year, was transferred to its current location adjacent to Notre-Dame itself. Since then, the experience has subsequently received over 60,000 visitors.
The experience itself takes place in an underground car park adjacent to the cathedral that has been repurposed to allow up to 100 headset-wearing visitors to wander freely, exploring the monument in the virtual world for around 45 minutes.
Alongside a headset, the experience requires visitors to don an LED-studded backpack that provides power and processing for the experience, while Wi-Fi infrastructure is used to track the users’ positioning within the facility and avoid collisions. While comfortable for the duration of the experience, this somewhat cumbersome setup illustrates one of the main obstacles facing the broader adoption of VR outside of a dedicated home-set up.
Nonetheless, for Morgan Bouchet, Orange’s global head of XR and metaverse, VR technology is on the right path. Devices are getting smaller, sleeker, and more powerful, and the advent of edge computing will allow the processing power to be offloaded to the cloud, eliminating the need for backpacks.
“In the Orange Lab at the Orange Innovation Park, we are exploring this scenario without the backpack thanks to edge computing. To stream the billions of polygons for the experience we need a very specific infrastructure, but thanks to 5G and fibre we can deliver it,” he said.
For Orange, part of the motivation for developing this experience was, of course, civic duty – of the €30 ticket price for the experience, Orange’s share (€10) is donated directly to Notre-Dame’s reconstruction.
But beyond helping to play a role in restoration, the value for Orange is also in demonstrating the potential of extended reality (XR) to enterprise customers. According to Bouchet a number of the operator’s B2B customers have already taken part in the experience and are reportedly ‘blown away’ by the technology’s potential.
“For Orange it’s a way to express something new,” said Bouchet. “We’re meeting with clients on the B2B side – they want to explore and understand the value of this technology and how they can use it in future. This is a good use case to demonstrate those capabilities.”
Bouchet said that major opportunities were available in segments like the automotive sector and healthcare, with virtual training being a key use case for both the private and public sectors.
As for the future of the ‘Eternal Notre-Dame’ experience itself, Orange says visitors will be able to enjoy the virtual tour until the end of 2024, to overlap with the Olympic games in Paris. Orange is also making the virtual experience available for customers around the world via Meta Quest’s App Lab and the Pico VR store; as before, all proceeds will go towards the cathedral’s restoration.
Furthermore, Bouchet explained that the project’s success has led them to begin engaging with other telcos and customers around the world with whom they could develop similar VR experiences.
“We’re currently in discussion with other countries in the world – in Asia and North America – to deliver similar experiences outside of France. We will look to licence the physical version of the VR experience to others if they want to offer the same kind of experience to their customers,” he explained.
Asked what Orange’s individual plans were for XR moving forward, Bouchet said that the company’s next project would also focus on Notre-Dame in the form of a 5G augmented reality experience for the social media app Snapchat.
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