Virtual Reality in South Africa

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Virtual reality and related immersive mediums open up a multitude of opportunities for entertainment, education, introspection and exploration. Susan Reynard reports.

Allowing audiences to experience new ways of storytelling through immersion is the simple description of virtual reality (VR). Ingrid Kopp, co-director at Electric South, says she tends to call anything that involves putting on a headset VR but notes people define it differently. Electric South is a non-profit organisation that funds, supports and mentors digital visual storytellers in Africa. Their New Dimensions collaboration with the Goethe-Institut provides funding support to “African storytellers and artists in the development and production of their own VR ideas and introducing African and international audiences to African-produced VR,” explains Ingrid and co-director and founder Steven Markovitz.

At the Durban FilmMart at the Durban International Film Festival in July, Electric South and Goethe-Institut showcased a selection of VR productions from Kenya, Senegal and Ghana. “Spirit Robot” by Jonathan Dotse, Ghanaian science fiction author and founder of the Afrocyberpunk website, takes a VR exploration of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra. Ng’endo Mukii, a photographer from Kenya, produced VR piece “Nairobi Berries” which includes a poetic city symphony on Nairobi with her voice-over alongside surreal, layered images of the city. Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane presented a 360 piece in which a little girl discovers the invisible Dakar. And “The Nest Collective” from Kenya created an interactive piece set in the future in which a group of Africans have left Earth to create a colony on a distant planet.

Although VR is not entirely new, technology has now caught up and can meet the inspiration and experimentation of storytellers. “I really want to see more prototyping for what VR will be in Africa and globally. Whatever VR becomes will be is dictated by the people working in it now. I want the African creative to be part of deciding what it can be,” Ingrid says. “We want to get people experimenting and see new stories coming out that will develop the market, in VR and other mediums. They will then create business models around that. The content will be the thing that makes people go, ‘This is awesome!’”

Virtual Encounters was held for the second time alongside the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival in June in Cape Town and Johannesburg. This exhibition of creative multi-platform, documentary storytelling was curated by Ingrid Kopp and showcased the best in VR, interactive and documentary video games, including the premiere of the New Dimensions project. Festival director Darryl Els explains, “We wanted to start a platform for VR documentary work, mostly because there are so many different ways of telling a non-fiction story for documentary practitioners who imagine their stories in other ways and for audiences.”

Darryl believes it is important to take an innovative approach to festivals and see audience development in a broad sense, ensuring there is access to VR and interactive work. “There is still a feeling of experimentation and openness with the stories you see, a real feeling of freedom as people take aesthetic and creative risks with the work they produce,” he says. He is excited about these different ways of imagining how non-fiction narratives can play out, the opportunities to realise a story outside of traditional formats in short, mid-length and feature documentaries.

Shmerah Passchier is an experienced film and television writer, director and producer, currently reading for a Phd in VR at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research into how the digital revolution of personal computers and the Internet has been a catalyst for the Fourth Industrial Revolution of “exponential technology” reveals challenges for Africa as it lags behind the developed world in terms of industrialisation. She says, “We urgently need a new generation of tech-entrepreneurs geared up to face the future head on.”

As a lecturer at AFDA School of Business Innovation and Technology, she says their course in VR 360 motion picture medium emphasises how to monetise VR creative products through online applications. “The VR filmmakers of the 21st Century embody the convergence of media technology in one centralised nexus point – the cyborg filmmaker – who is simultaneously a nexus point for the convergence of filmmaking skills in one centralised creative being. Exponential increases in computing power equate to the need for exponential skills acquisition, personified in the futurist filmmaker who is engaged with the project of becoming future proof.”

Tyrone Rubin from SenseVirtual and EventsVirtual was an early adopter of VR and has found new and interesting ways to monetise the medium. SenseVirtual is the studio that creates VR experiences and 360-degree videos specific to a brand and EventsVirtual is the division that provides high-end VR hardware to show at events, functions, exhibitions and activations.

They use VR in educational, training, marketing, retail and now real estate experiences. Just some of their diverse range of clients includes Adidas, Electrolux, Universal Healthcare, Sanlam, Google, Barclays, MiWay, GE and Shell. Their activations have allowed people to play alongside Orlando Pirates, journey through space in a spaceship and learn about mathematics, business, economics and the human body with high student retention rates.

For more on Virtual Reality and its top trends read Issue 8:

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