Ottawa Changemakers: Poptronic uses virtual reality to bring Indigenous experiences to life

Indigenous-owned Poptronic virtual reality
Indigenous-owned Poptronic virtual reality recently moved from Cornwall to Akwesasne.
Editor's Note

Ottawa Changemakers is presented by Invest Ottawa and RBC Royal Bank.

Poptronic, an Indigenous-owned virtual reality business, is moving a traditional culture of storytelling into the next generation with immersive technology. 

The company’s business intertwines Indigenous heritage, historical narratives and cutting-edge technology. Currently, the company is targeting businesses to help them bring their materials to life.

One example of this is a project aimed at educating high school students about truth and reconciliation. With Poptronic’s program, students won’t simply be reading about the experiences of Canadian Indigenous children sent to residential schools — they’ll put on headsets and go on a journey with a poet who has actually lived the experience.

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“We’re working with a local school and bringing in a film from the National Film Board on (virtual reality),” says Kelly Bergeron, Poptronic co-founder and CEO. “It’s called ‘This is Not a Ceremony.’ It’s about the residential school system and it tells a story about a man, a poet, who goes through the residential school system and what that was like for him or his ancestors as well. It brings in all of the Indigenous storytelling.”

It’s likely an experience students will retain for a long time. Dr. Narendra Kini, the CEO of Miami Children’s Health System, demonstrated that students who trained using virtual reality were able to retain nearly 80 per cent of what they learned when tested after one year, whereas students who trained using traditional methods retained only 20 per cent a week after being tested.

Bergeron fell in love with virtual reality (VR) during the pandemic.

“When I was at home, I was teaching how to build VR experiences. And Facebook started feeding me all these ads for working out in VR and I went out and bought one because I’m like, ‘Well, I’m stuck inside. It’s winter, right?” she recalls.

“I got so hooked on the experience that I was like, everyone needs to know that this exists, because the workout that you can get in VR can be as much as, like, biking. They’ve actually done health studies on how effective it is on your heart to do the workouts. And we’re seeing that with meditation as well. So we know that VR also has immense health benefits.”

Recently, Poptronic moved from Cornwall to Akwasasne, where it has found the support of a community of storytellers. In addition, co-founder and CTO Chatnie Herne has taken a majority stake in the company so that it can truly be Indigenous-led.

“The support we get is incredible. It’s such a community, a place where people are curious and want to learn and want to get excited about things. And it’s just so nice to feel welcome. We have all kinds of people come into the studio for birthday parties and their kids will come in and they play VR and they’ll bring food and all that, but it’s also a place for people to come and do work,” Bergeron says.

“We’re also going to do workshops and special events where we can premiere certain immersive storytelling pieces, but it’s actually going to be a place where we can physically get together and share our excitement for VR and (augmented reality) technology,” Bergeron says.

Poptronic is also working in therapeutic realms, employing VR for cognitive rehabilitation of stroke patients. 

“Patients might only be able to use their arms in VR, so they’re able to do some exercises or just do puzzles because they can’t really move around physically,” Bergeron adds of the diverse applicability of VR technology.

Bergeron says that, with an immersive storytelling experience, VR can offer its audience a layer of empathy. She points to a study that shows that information presented in an immersive story has an 11 per cent greater retention rate than information simply read on the page of a book. 

To that end, Bergeron says, they are seeing digital experiences built on top of books.

“They’re building augmented reality glasses where the book pages literally can jump out at you. And they’re designing all kinds of digital experiences with augmented reality, just like with books and with the built environment around them,” she says.

Being located in Akwesasne on the Canada-U.S. border means the company can explore opportunities in that market. Bergeron says that’s likely in the company’s plans for 2024.

Despite the successes, there have been hurdles, Bergeron says, adding she wishes the company had seen more support locally before it moved. 

“It’s important to recognize that it’s not easy. I know other entrepreneurs can feel really ground down by politics, etcetera. But we’ve just been able to take it and use it as fuel for our fire.”

Ottawa Changemakers highlights entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences who are making a difference in the city.

Invest Ottawa is Ottawa’s lead economic development agency for knowledge-based industries. Guided by a vision to be a globally recognized, innovative, inclusive and future-ready city, Invest Ottawa delivers programs and services that catalyze the growth and success of entrepreneurs and firms.

RBC Royal Bank is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance and creating value for clients and communities.

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