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South Africa Making Strides in Virtual Reality Sphere

JOHANNESBURG — Pop into a Spur franchise in Johannesburg these days and you might get a Google Cardboard along with your burger and fries.

The push by the fast-food chain to get thousands of free, low-end Virtual Reality headsets into the marketplace underscores the fact that South Africa is determined to be a part of the global VR conversation.

The challenge, though, is to make sure that conversation flows in both directions.

“The big problem right now will be to make sure Africa puts its flag in the ground creatively speaking, as almost 100% of the content currently available on [major] platforms…is not from Africa,” says Neil Brandt, a producer with Fireworx Media, which this year launched Cyclops (Pvt.) Ltd., a subsidiary company focused exclusively on VR and 360 productions.

“While much of the technological and story-telling innovation is coming out of the ‘global north,’ we believe that our perspectives…will have a unique place to fill in the VR content landscape,” he says.

Cyclops’ first VR project, “Future Shock,” a collaboration with Brazilian and American partners, is being presented to Google and Oculus Rift this week at the PBS POV Hackathon in San Francisco, where Cyclops is the only African company represented.

As the commercial prospects for VR in South Africa continue to grow, Brandt calls it “an extraordinarily well-timed moment to get international exposure” for the local VR community. His partner, Dan Jawitz, will be part of a panel discussion on African VR taking place in Johannesburg Nov. 3, as part of the Discop Africa TV content market.

Few on the ground in South Africa anticipated the rapid growth they’re witnessing.

“Our predictions were wrong,” admits Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, CEO of Deep VR, a cinematic VR content studio in Johannesburg. “Just a year ago, we were saying…a lot of mid- to high-end equipment was not going to be a mass-consumer adopted product.”

Already, though, he’s seen hundreds of clients request Samsung’s Gear VR along with content commissioned from his studio. “The speed has been amazing,” he says.

Brandt says “the demand is going to grow exponentially as 2017 approaches [and] VR really starts to gain traction in the popular imagination” for “consumers, decision-makers, investors, funders, agencies and storytellers.”

The practical applications of VR have helped fuel the industry, driven by corporate demand for branded content. “VR has attracted so much PR that it makes sense for brands that are interested in consumer engagement to use the technology to wow people,” says Grech-Cumbo, whose company has developed campaigns for the likes of Marriott International and Ocean Spray.

SDK, which has offices in South Africa, San Francisco, Botswana and Cameroon, became a pioneer in VR and augmented-reality technology on the continent by offering VR training courses in mining and other industries. Education, healthcare, tourism, and real estate are all sectors that are helping South African content developers find a niche in the industry.

For narrative storytelling, though, funding is more problematic.

“The major challenge is probably investment into start-ups,” says Brandt, “as South African VCs are traditionally risk averse, and at this moment literally billions of dollars of VC cash is flowing into VR hardware and content companies in Europe, North America and Asia. Very little is available in Africa for out-of-the-box thinkers.”

It’s a challenge that sparked the creation of Electric South, a Cape Town-based non-profit focused on developing the tools to effectively produce and distribute new-media content coming out of Africa.

Their first project, “New Dimensions,” is an ambitious narrative VR storytelling concept, featuring a pan-African collective of techies, sci-fi writers, gamers, hackers, artists and Afro-futurists from five African nations.

The project is a partnership between South Africa’s Big World Cinema, the Goethe Institute, Toronto-based indie distrib Blue Ice Docs, and SDK, a company founded in South Africa in 2012, that is a pioneer in VR technology on the continent.

Ingrid Kopp, a co-founder of Electric South, and a senior consultant for the Tribeca Film Institute, who set up the TFI New Media Fund in 2011, says what’s needed is “localized funding for creative projects in Africa.”

“It could be VC money, it could be philanthropy money, it could be angel investors,” she says. Given the many ways that VR in Africa can benefit a range of sectors – whether it’s used as an educational tool or to promote tourism – Kopp says governments can also step up with investments to help the industry blossom.

Ultimately, the goal is “to have more diverse pots of funding within Africa, from Africa,” she says.

In many ways, the continent’s VR landscape outside of South Africa is uncharted territory. While hubs of activity have emerged in places like Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana, even those working in the industry struggle to get a clear sense of what works – and what doesn’t – in different cities.

Part of the goal with New Dimensions, says Kopp, is to map the African terrain, with the project trying to “open-source as much as possible” in order to help create a blueprint for other developers.

“Everything from how to get cameras in and out of countries to the best cameras that don’t overheat” in African climates is part of a growing conversation about what form the industry will take on the continent, once it emerges.

Few countries will be able to keep pace with South Africa’s dynamic growth. Even in Nairobi, whose much-heralded “silicon savannah” has made it the focal point of an African tech boom, there hasn’t been “a comparable momentum” to South Africa, according to Kenyan multimedia artist Jim Chuchu, a collaborator on “New Dimensions.”

“The gear isn’t widely available yet, and there isn’t a conversation about making the gear easier to access, even on the basic Google Cardboard level,” he says.

Even with accessible gear, slow Internet speeds and high data costs will make it hard for consumer adoption to take off in many countries. For producers, though, a wider industry is taking shape that will eventually “create pipelines of talent and stories” to satisfy global demand for African content, according to Kopp.

“If the New York Times wants to make a VR piece in Lagos,” she says, “they shouldn’t have to send someone from New York.”

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