A gibbous moon hangs over the plump hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships as my two daughters and I climb the meandering path to National Geographic ObservÉtoiles, marketed as “the world’s first open-air augmented-reality planetarium."
From this glorious vantage point – a 184-seat hillside amphitheatre surrounded by a recently designated Dark Sky Preserve – reality seems to be doing just fine without any digital augmentation. Then again, we have yet to test our smartphone-equipped headsets.
The moment we tilt our heads left or right to activate constellation mode, ObservÉtoiles’s unique appeal becomes apparent. To paraphrase the late Gord Downie, our headsets reveal the constellations one star at a time while overlaying them with mythical figures. These swim into view and fade away as we scan the midnight-blue horizon. (The hour-long presentation actually begins in solar system mode, an astronomer-narrated planetary fly-by that isn’t all that different from traditional planetarium shows.)
Jeremy Fontana, owner of the surrounding Au Diable Vert nature resort, began developing the concept more than two years ago with Andrew Fazekas, a Montreal-based science writer and educator. (Nat Geo brought its marketing muscle to the table as the project neared its June 23 debut.) And while sitting in the million-dollar amphitheatre is definitely a memorable experience, one of the best elements of ObservÉtoiles is that you can relive it at home: All adult guests can keep their headsets, minus the slotted-in smartphones of course.
A few nights later, the horizon is punctuated not by rolling hills, but by condo towers. The lustrous digital constellations, however, remain much the same as my daughters and I make good use of our souvenir. By downloading the free StarChart app to my own device, we’re able to recount much of what we learned about the heavenly bodies above us.
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