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Experiencing Lou: A VR exploration in autism

Montreal - Wednesday, July 19, 2023

by Jordan Stoopler

Martine Asselin and Annick Daigneault are no strangers to autism, having each raised a son on the spectrum. Asselin’s son Théo, 14, and Daigneault’s son Maëlle, 16, were much of the inspiration behind Les pieds en haut: Lou, an immersive and interactive virtual reality (VR) experience showing the sensitivities and special interests of Lou, who is autistic. The official Montreal launch for invited guests was held on April 19 at the Café de la société des arts technologiques before public screenings later that month. 
Experiencing Lou: A VR exploration in autism

“We wanted to work on a project that would help us better understand our own children, but also help others understand, whether it be classmates at school or other adults, what the reality of our autistic children was,” said Daigneault, co-creator with Asselin. “We quickly realized the best way to highlight this was through virtual reality.” 

The co-production by Hubblo and UNLTD is available in both English and French and is split into two distinct chapters of the fictitious character Lou: his fifth birthday (Kid) and his first day of high school (Teen). Audiences, through the use of VR headsets, become Lou, experiencing the various emotions and behaviours that are brought about by these life events. Coping mechanisms, such as flapping one’s hands like a bird (inspired by Maëlle’s own behaviour), the slamming of a toy box cover and singing (a habit of Théo’s) are re-enacted by the audience throughout the 25-minute production. 

“We wanted to show how certain autistic individuals might react in different situations, how they might use objects and the noise they make to help them calm down during a stressful situation,” said Daigneault. 

There was an eight-year gap between the initial conception of the project in 2016 to its widespread release this month. During that time, Asselin and Daigneault spoke with a wide range of autistic people to get their input and help create the character of Lou. 

“We took the most interesting elements we had gathered that would fit best with the virtual reality experience,” said Asselin. 

“It’s a mixture of our observations and the testimonials we gathered,” said Daigneault. “We translated the stories we received and our own personal experiences with our children. There’s a lot of us and love in this project.” 

Lou has already earned high praise and received honours and awards. It was shown at the Montreal International Documentary Festival in November and at the famed South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas earlier this spring. It was nominated for a prize at One World in Prague, the largest human rights film festival in the world, and recently captured a Canadian Screen Award for Best Immersive Experience, Non-Fiction.

Several public screenings took place in April and May in Quebec, including at L'Espace culturel Georges-Émile- Lapalme at Place Des Arts, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City and as part of the Sommets de l’animation at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal. 

Asselin and Daigneault are planning to bring Les pieds en haut: Lou to cultural centres and schools, with customized workshops and presentations. 

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