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Virtual Reality Makes Real Gains Across Africa

Corporates drive growth as biz finds niche in tourism, advertising

Head a few miles north of the Sandton Convention Center, where more than a thousand producers, broadcasters, and assorted industry execs are gathering this week to discuss the latest trends in African content at Discop, and you can deep-sea dive off the Galapagos islands, battle zombies, buckle up for a trip to the moon—or look into the future.

At VRCade, a virtual reality arcade which opened in Johannesburg last year, customers can get a glimpse of what the burgeoning VR industry will have in store as it expands into the African market.

Yet just as tepid headgear sales in the U.S. in 2016 tempered industry-wide forecasts of an impending VR revolution, widescale adoption in Africa seems a good way off—even in South Africa, the continent’s most-developed market.

“The technology there is far from mature,” says Glenn Gillis, CEO of Sea Monster, an animation and gaming studio that specializes in virtual and augmented reality. Yet Gillis adds that many in the industry are “cautiously optimistic” of the gains that can be expected in the next three-to-five years.

South Africa has already gotten a taste of what VR can offer in sectors like healthcare, real estate and tourism. Developers are optimistic that the technology will have a transformative effect in classrooms across the continent, too. “It’s such a natural way to bring things alive,” says Gillis.

Much of the momentum for the industry so far has come from the corporate sector, as the demand for innovative and memorable branded content has driven the use of AR and VR in advertising. “If you want people to get involved with your brand, you need to give them something of value,” says Gillis, who together with Dutch partners developed an award-winning augmented-reality game for South Africa’s Pick ‘n’ Pay supermarket chain.

What might have once seemed like a flashy but superfluous addition to an ad campaign is starting to be viewed in a more practical light. “The naysayers of VR who think it’s a fad simply don’t realize it’s useful,” says Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, CEO of Deep VR, a cinematic VR content studio in Johannesburg that’s developed ad campaigns for the likes of Marriott International and Ocean Spray.

“As proofs of concepts and well-funded VR campaigns have come out globally, we’re seeing a sustained interest from corporations,” he adds. “As a company we have quadrupled our staff base in the last year.”

That hasn’t necessarily trickled down to widespread adoption at the consumer level, where hardware is still out of the reach of most South Africans. Globally, strong sales figures for Sony’s PlayStation VR headset earlier this year highlighted how the next wave of hardware can achieve mass-market success at the right price point. Earlier this month, Facebook introduced the Oculus Go, an all-in-one headset that will retail for $199, ensuring it will find a place on many South African bucket lists.

“Oculus and HTC have been locked in a price war for the last year or more, dropping prices all the time,” notes Grech-Cumbo. “At a $200 price point, a VR headset would be competing in the league of a fitness device instead of an iPad, which is significant for mass adoption.”

For now, the industry is locked in a chicken-and-egg conundrum when it comes to unlocking the potential of VR, particularly when it comes to gaming and filmmaking, with consumers unlikely to come onboard until there’s more content to choose from. “You can’t get the content, so how do you drive the users?” asks Gillis.

One of the goals in Johannesburg this week is “demystifying VR for filmmakers,” according to producer Steven Markovitz, CEO of Big World Cinema, which last year helped to launch “New Dimensions,” a pan-African narrative VR collaboration featuring artists from five countries.

“It’s become so much cheaper to produce VR,” Markovitz says, adding that he hopes at Discop to “encourage filmmakers to get out there and…take chances.”

With the second edition of “New Dimensions,” which is spearheaded by Electric South, a Cape Town-based non-profit focused on producing and distributing new-media content from Africa, along with the Ford Foundation, the Bertha Foundation, and Big World, Markovitz sees an opportunity for African creatives to reshape narratives about the continent that are still largely told by foreigners.

Yet even as nascent VR industries struggle to take root across the continent, with small but energetic hubs emerging in cities like Lagos and Nairobi, African filmmakers are faced with the same challenges as their counterparts around the world.

“Each era builds on the next one,” says Markovitz, noting that traditional filmmakers have more than 100 years of cinematic history to learn from.

“With VR, we’re right at the beginning of [creating] a film language,” he says. “The more people who are participating and experimenting, the more we can move that along.”

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