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African Content Creators Look for Ways to Bring Region Into Global VR Conversation

With the first wave of virtual-reality headsets hitting the consumer market, and the upcoming MipTV market programming several panels and showcases around VR, content creators are still grappling with what the new technology will mean for the future of storytelling.

In South Africa, a group of techies, sci-fi writers, gamers, hackers, artists and Afro-futurists from throughout the continent recently gathered in search of a way to insert Africa into the global VR conversation.

Their first meeting, which took place in Johannesburg in late October, was the launch pad for what organizers say will be an ambitious pan-African initiative to develop regional stories for virtual reality.

South African film producer Steven Markovitz, who selected participants from five countries to help determine the way forward, notes that with VR still “in its infancy … there’s this opportunity to get involved at an early phase and build real production capacity across the continent.”

It is an attempt, he says, to “challenge that dominant narrative” that largely portrays Africa in a negative light.

The project is a partnership among Markovitz’s Big World Cinema, the Goethe Institute, Toronto-based Blue Ice Docs and pioneering VR tech firm SDK, a company founded in South Africa in 2012.

Africa presents a range of logistical challenges for the new platform. While American consumers might look forward to the release of the Oculus Rift and other high-end VR headsets, the African market will be more suited in the short term to devices like Google Cardboard, which can function with only a smartphone and a mobile network.

“Oculus will never be big in Africa,” says Shaun Wilson, founder of SDK. “If you want your application to be used in Africa, it has to be mobile.”

Despite the growing penetration of mobile networks across the continent, data is still prohibitively expensive in many countries. Sluggish speeds will make it difficult for consumers to download large files.

Ghanaian sci-fi writer Jonathan Dotse and his business partner Kabiru Seidu, who co-founded the Accra-based NubianVR and created their first VR short film, “Pandora,” earlier this year, argue that African entrepreneurs can find innovative ways around those logistical challenges.

For instance, Dotse has built a crude VR headset from scratch. He attached a USB cable to allow users to charge their mobile phones while in use and stream data — an important hack in Africa, where streaming is much faster than downloading data over wireless networks.

Dotse is now exploring whether 3D printers can be utilized to build cheap headsets.

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