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Crossing the rift: why we can expect big things from South Africa’s growing VR industry

On Wednesday evening, CiTi held an event at the Bandwidth Barn detailing Virtual Reality (VR) in South Africa, its plans, as well as general information on both local and international markets.

VR has been around since the 1980s and in recent years has made a resurgence, thanks to Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift. While some may still view (no pun intended) VR as something akin to cheesy science fiction, it has evolved well beyond its initial low-tech B-movie stigma and that of Nintendo’s horrendous Virtual Boy. CEO of CiTi, Ian Merrington, had this to say in his welcome speech:

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Tech and innovation are no longer about isolated development or working in silos. Rather it is a catalyst bringing together industries, disciplines and mediums in our quest to innovate and create. The Virtual Reality community is a first in the country and we are proud to continue CiTi’s tradition of technology, innovation and inclusive growth through this new initiative.

According to Glenn Gillis, MD of Sea Monster, VR’s main breakthrough within markets will be its pricing and market appeal. It will have to enter the market at a price consumers can afford and have killer apps. Much like most entertainment technology if it cannot break through these barriers the technology may not become a viable option for entertainment.

Of course, for this to be more than just a fad, these new platforms will have to find ways to balance great creative ideas, with the realities of what the technology can deliver, with key business or social outcomes, with creating entertaining and satisfying user experiences.

VR’s current competition is that of Augmented Reality (AR). The latter tech uses your environment and simulates projecting image sand objects around it. This allows the user to become more immersed within the application. A recent example of AR is Microsoft’s HoloLens project. The device not only gives you the appearance of the cool 80’s action hero when wearing the headset, but adds holographic items, such as Skype or the Windows Store, to your environment.

The audience was shown Magic Leap’s TED video. It shows off a user, first interacting with Gmail in AR and then starting a video game. The player selects a weapon off of his desk, picks it up, places turrets on the floor around him, and is finally attacked by robot AI and a tank which bursts through the wall. All of this is done using AR, which interacts with his environment. While this will offer each user a different experience depending on their environment, it will be interesting to see what games come out of it. Virtuix has designed — and funded through Kickstarter — the Omni system.

This device allows VR users to walk in place using a VR headset. It adds immersion by eliminating the need for a controller or keyboard as the movement. Think of it as a sort of multi-direction treadmill, but not. Film and streaming services are getting into the VR game (pun intended) as well. YouTube is currently developing a 360-degree video system.

The Google entity have rolled out an initial demo, which was created in conjunction with Tomorrowland 2014. At the end of April, personal camcorder company, GoPro, acquired a Kolor, a French firm specialising in 360-degree motion capture hardware.

And finally, Steven Spielberg will be adapting the cult classic virtual reality novel, Ready Player One. Thankfully it’s not a new Indiana Jones that’s his first foray into VR. HBO has already been taking advantage of VR technology for the popular TV show, Game of Thrones. This experience, dubbed “Ascend the Wall”, shows the user a guided on-rails tour of Castle Black and ends with standing on the edge of The Wall. Wind is blown into the booth to add to the immersion. Marriot International — famous for their international hotels — have begun to capitalise on VR.

They are using the technology to show couples virtual holiday destinations in London and Hawaii. It will be used by Marriott Travel to promote their honeymoon destinations. An expensive venture, but one that’s sure to pay off. Aside from multimedia and gaming aspects, proponents of VR are experimenting with marketing it towards B2B, which will help fund the entertainment projects. There is already a fully funded venture capital VR program in Cape Town and is marketed towards airlines in training pilots.

It has been stressed VR will not replace traditional training simulations for pilots, but rather it will help them with muscle memory. The project will be an interactive training manual to help with pilot training. A demo of this system wasn’t show off. Hero Film recently produced three Oculus Rift videos for Old Mutual. The videos were shown off at the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon. The videos allowed users to experience three different parts of the Two Oceans Course as which was filmed with Bruce Fordyce. SenseVirtual is Africa’s first technology startup focused solely on Virtual Reality content and applications.

Their first project, Awakenings, is a story-driven science fiction thriller app. The demo, which isn’t a representation of the final product, gives a distinct Ridley Scott feeling, which can only be a good thing. Once the event talks were over I had a chance to try out one of the games running on Oculus Rift. The object of the is racing around a track while crossing certain barriers to extend your time limit. What I like about the demo is the ability to strafe around the cylindrical track. This feature allowed me to experience more of the environment.

Unfortunately, the device isn’t quite equipped to handle users with glasses, and deciding not to wear mine during the demo gave me an incredible migraine. The resolution on this demo had been set quite low. It reminded me of the original PSP’s screen and contained the same bleeding effect.

The just launched local VR community, Virtual Reality SA, will be focusing on building the VR industry within South Africa. At present the website has featured news on VR, but will be implementing groups and forums for anyone to join. They are urging all of those interested in VR to sign up.

Grant de Sousa of Virtual Reality SA spoke about the South African VR community:

The overwhelming success of the launch is testament to the power and attraction of Virtual Reality. Our message then and now is clear: To drive South Africa’s first virtual reality community forward with like-minded ambitious people through one word: passion. As a team will continue to drive the community forward as South Africans in the virtual reality space, not only as followers but, ultimately, as leaders in the virtual reality community, globally.

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