The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 15 May 2015
Category: Features
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When was the last time you tried a virtual-reality headset? Twenty years ago? Never? Did you even know that virtual reality was a reality - in South Africa? Developers, content creators, and people who are just curious have met in Cape Town to organise a formal VR community to make it easier to share ideas and work on projects - and everyone's welcome.

On Wednesday night at the Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town local VR (virtual reality) developers got together with interested third parties, which included game developers, at least one architect, a robotics expert, and a UCT student working towards completing his PhD in VR, as well as keen members of the media, to discuss setting up a South African VR community to make it easier in future for people to work together towards common goals, swap ideas and experiences, and collaborate on projects, with a secondary aim of putting South African developers on the map globally as leaders in VR-related development.

South Africa's games-development community already has a similar association in the form of Make Games South Africa and its animation community has the same in the form of Animation SA. Therefore the purpose of the evening was to educate people on what has been happening locally, as much of it has been going on behind closed doors or in arenas with limited exposure, and see if there is enough interest in VR to do the same for this community.

On the night attendees were also treated to overviews of - and insight into - projects that various international - and local - companies have been working on as well as some demos on various development versions of the Oculus Rift (the mass-market version of the headset will only be available in 2016), running on both Windows and Mac OS machines, and a Google Cardboard setup that used an Android phone. This allowed them to leave with practical experience of the technologies and their possibilities, and hopefully greater enthusiasm for where we may be headed.


Grant De Sousa - The State Of VR
The evening began with Bandwidth Barn's Ian Merrington welcoming the guests, who numbered about 150, and introducing the team responsible for organising the night - Sense Virtual's Grant De Sousa, Richard Ramsbottom, and Tyrone Rubin - and then it was time for the discussions and demos to begin.

Grand De Sousa kicked off with an explanation as to why the meeting had been organised and what everyone hoped to gain from it. He described how VR technology is "in its infancy but we want to be pioneering with people who are pioneering" - in other words, a challenge to the people in the room to prove that they can be leaders, internationally, in working on game-changing projects and experiences. He also had us envisioning what out living rooms might be like in 50 years' time if the technology is adopted by the mainstream and continues to develop further. He told the group that what will be key for the technology to survive and grow, rather than remain a gimmick, is for it to become affordable and for it to appeal to a mass market, which means that developers need to work on projects that people are going to feel they can't live without.

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

De Sousa's presentation then went through the past and present of VR to get everyone up to speed as to where the technology now lies and what hardware and software developers are working on, and with, internationally. He started with AR (augmented reality) and discussed headsets such as Magic Leap, Google Glass, and Microsoft HoloLens, all of which superimpose digital content over your view of the physical world rather than immerse you fully in a new 3D environment.


[ YouTube link ]

Next he delved into VR headsets, some of which are available and some of which are still in development, such as HTC's Vive VR headset, which is a collaboration with game developer Valve, as well as Sony's Project Morpheus VR headset for the PlayStation 4, Google Cardboard for Android smart phones (which you can build yourself for about US$20), and, of course, the Oculus Rift, which originated as a successful Kickstarter-funded project that was then sold to Facebook for US$2 billion (infuriating a lot of the backers in the process as they had intentionally backed what was an independent company working on awesome technology for the future and didn't want it sucked into the Facebook empire).

De Sousa then talked about some of the companies and products that have utilised VR to offer or enhance an experience. This includes a "virtual entertainment center" called The Void, by a company in Utah in the US, that will offer an immersive experience that includes audio, video, physical sensations, and motion simulators.


[ YouTube link ]

Another product is the Virtuix Omni VR Treadmill (another successful Kickstarter project) that puts you on a multi-directional treadmill that has a slippery platform, enclosed in a rig, which allows you to walk around in VR environments for a more realistic experience.


[ YouTube link ]

Stitching cameras and rigs, such as Samsung's Project Beyond and various options for GoPro cameras, are another application of VR - it's the 21st century equivalent of the 360-degree photograph that was initially punted by Apple via its QuickTime software in the last 1990s but never really gained mass-market traction. These devices allow users to film 360-degree video, either using multiple individual cameras, in the case of GoPro cameras, or via multiple cameras built into one unit, in the case of Project Beyond, which can then be viewed on devices such as Google Cardboard or via YouTube's 360-degree platform. (Videos, such as the one below, already exist for the platform but if you want to view the 360-degree experience you need the latest version of Chrome for desktop devices or the YouTube Android app for mobile devices.)


[ YouTube link ]

De Sousa then moved on to content and story and discussed some of the top global companies that have worked on pioneering or experimental projects to match the technology with a memorable experience, which is ultimately what stays with people. These include Oculus Story Studio, VRSE.works, and Jaunt VR, all of which are working on projects to use VR as an immersive storytelling medium. He also mentioned that director Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct an adaptation of the virtual-reality novel Ready Player One by Ernie Cline, citing it as an example of how Spielberg's interest means that VR is starting to go gain traction and be relevant to a mass market.

An example of an experience is Framestore's Game Of Thrones VR exhibit called Game Of Thrones: Ascend The Wall, in which participants enter the lift in Castle Black and ascend The Wall with the help of an Oculus Rift headset, wind machines, a lift, and rumble packs in the floor to add a physical experience to the visuals.


[ YouTube link ]

Framestore was also responsible for designing a virtual-reality travel experience for the Marriott hotel group, in which booths were set up outside New York City Hall and newly married couples were invited to try out a virtual honeymoon experience in places such as London and Hawaii.


[ YouTube link ]

De Sousa finished by stating the aims of the community and advising everyone of the various social-media accounts and the web site, which will be a home base for people to "collaborate on VR projects, discuss and engage with VR enthusiasts and hackers, share VR experiences, and gauge community feedback to continue to grow and develop".



Glenn Gillis, Sea Monster
Glenn Gillis, the managing director of animation and games-development studio Sea Monster, spoke next, succinctly encapsulating why VR matters for the future. He discussed how his studio has worked on over 50 AR apps and games and that Sea Monster's aim was to "try to creating engaging digital content and experiences" because ultimately that is what matters, not the hardware, technology, or delivery platform, as "stories are how we make sense of the world".

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

Gillis reminded everyone that for many years television was a passive medium but in the last few years the top-rated shows have tended to be reality shows. "Why? Because they're essentially games," he said. "We want the ability to influence what's happening around us."

He then delved into potential applications for VR, noting that it's not all about entertainment and that the technology can be utilised in other spheres as well, describing, without going into specifics, a "fully funded, venture-capital-backed" project that the company has been working on for the airline industry that can benefit commercial pilots. Pilots have been training themselves using the same method for decades - reading manuals - and the project will instead allow them to train their muscle memory at their convenience and from the comfort of their living rooms (presumably with a VR headset and simulated interiors of aircraft).

Gillis then offered a challenge to the audience to develop product and not "sell billable hours" because he believes that developers should start thinking in line with the secondary aim of the meeting: to be pioneers in hardware, software, or experiences and not just sell their skills to a corporation or organisation that needs short-term assistance on a project.

Finally, Gillis hinted at a future (presumably VR based) collaboration that his studio will be setting up with a major international entertainment company that will result in a gaming hub for Cape Town. He is refusing to say more at this point but I could see by speaking with members of the Sea Monster team after the presentations that the company is incredibly excited about this project.



Pierre Steytler And Brendan Stein, Hero Film
Hero Film's Pierre Steytler (pictured below, left) and Brendan Stein spoke next about a VR project the company worked on for Old Mutual.

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

The project required the team to film long-distance runner Bruce Fordyce along a number of sections of the Two Oceans Marathon route using six GoPro cameras. The footage from the cameras was then stitched together to create a 3D 360-degree video experience.


[ YouTube link ]

Demo booths were set up at the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon Expo, which allowed runners to wear a headset and "run" along with Fordyce, all the while giving them free rein to explore a 360-degree view of the moment.


[ YouTube link ]



Graeme Lipshitz, Wonderland Collective
Wonderland Collective developed an AR project for Sanlam Investments to help it share its employee-value proposition with its staff to help with staff retention. (In other words, I presume, give the staff members an experience that makes them feel good about themselves and the company, while providing valuable feedback via analytics, so they don't want to leave the company.)

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

The experience worked via tablets and mobile phones, using a modified version of AR app Layar, which Lipshitz demonstrated with a tablet in front of the audience. Employees could access AR-triggered content, such as voiceovers, YouTube videos, and custom illustrations, by holding their devices in front of trigger icons. Analytics generated by the employees' use of the technology, such as what people favoured looking at and what they spent the most time on, then allowed Wonderland Collective to develop a second application with content that was better tailored for the users.



Grant De Sousa, Sense Virtual
Grant De Sousa then returned to the stage to discuss Sense Virtual, the VR studio that he, Richard Ramsbottom, and Tyrone Rubin formed. He talked the audience through the services that the team offers to demonstrate, once again, that VR is about more than gaming. The services include VR development, VR content creation, VR property (a project to allow estate agents to show a property virtually), VR education (to encourage learning via immersive visuals rather than with textbook based education), and VR experiences (both entertainment and edutainment).

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

Most exciting, however, is Awakenings, a new science-fiction thriller that the team has been working on. It is not a game, rather it is an interactive storytelling experience that uses VR as its central immersive technology and it was suggested by Ramsbottom (who is also the project's animator and designer) and is being directed by De Sousa and produced by Rubin. We were treated to an early demo of the project (the team was quick to point out that the photorealism will be enhanced at a later stage), which is the story of a character named Nolan who wakes up with amnesia on a spaceship (it looked like it was near Jupiter) with, therefore, no memory of how he got there or what's happening. We were shown the character moving through some of the ship's hallways and caught glimpses of the view outside the ship. We were also (possibly accidentally) given a bit of a story spoiler so I won't describe that.

De Sousa told the audience that the team needs more people to come on board to work on the project, including artists and sound engineers. This is an open offer to anyone interested - you can contact the team for more information even if you weren't at the meeting on Wednesday.

De Sousa then thanked the audience for attending and once again gave everyone contact-detail information for the VR community, thereby ending the presentation part of the evening.



VR In Action - I Get My Hands On Some Technology And Have Some Experiences
After a quick pizza-and-soft-drink break everyone was invited to try out various VR experiences that had been set up for demonstration, including the Bruce Fordyce project, a roller-coaster simulator, a motocross game, and educational projects.

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

The queues were very long so I wasn't able to try everything but I had a chance to look at Google Cardboard and use an Oculus Rift headset. With Google Cardboard I initially struggled to see one image - I kept seeing both superimposed over each other - until someone suggested I do the eye-crossing trick you had to use to look at those 3D puzzles that used to appear in You magazine. That worked, although I still didn't see anything in 3D bar the video having a sort of wrap-around effect along my peripheral vision rather than being flat in front of me. (I'm not sure if you're supposed to see anything in 3D bar the wrap-around effect.)

What I did get to experience, however, was a 360-degree-video environment that I was told was captured by a film-maker in Palestine. It showed groups of kids in their daily lives, mainly having fun hanging out and playing games outdoors, with me in the centre of the action, able to view it in any direction as I turned my head. It was an interesting experience and I can see (so to speak) lots of applications (and abuses) for this technology beyond just a concert experience such as the Tomorrowland video above (though that's a valid application too).

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

I was also able to don an Oculus Rift development headset, plus headphones, to experience VR first hand with the help of a presentation called Insurgent: Shatter Reality, which is a teaser experience for the movie The Divergent Series: Insurgent. The presentation puts you in a science-fiction environment and throws a bunch of "trials" at you (similar, though less intense, to what Neo went through after first being pulled out of the matrix), such as sitting on top of a skyscraper in a post-apocalyptic world as birds dive bomb you and having a train race towards you while you're sitting on the tracks.


[ YouTube link ]

The storytelling and action (which features live-action actors, some of whom are Hollywood A-listers) is a little lacking and wooden but the point was the experience of the technology. I definitely found it much more immersive than a traditional 3D movie because it feels as though the environment is all around you instead of just in front of you as you are free to move your head and change your view at your will. Being stuck in a chair (both virtually and in the real world) was a little constricting (hence experimental products such as the Virtuix Omni VR Treadmill) but it's early days. Right now it's also necessary to keep you in one place as the headset calibrates your view at the start of the presentation via a webcam that's mounted on the computer monitor. I also found the headset to be a bit heavy, bulky, and uncomfortable and it kept slipping down my head slightly, even after we adjusted it to fit, so I had to keep pushing it up to keep the images I was viewing sharp. The presentation was only four minutes long but I know that the weight of the headset, coupled with the slipping, would have become an uncomfortable problem for anything longer than about 10 or 15 minutes.

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

Thankfully I didn't experience any nausea, headaches, or vision problems, which are other side-effects that people can experience and are one of the reasons that there hasn't been mass adoption of 3D movies in the home, nevermind VR, and why many people still prefer the 2D options of film at the cinema - if they can find them, as our local cinema chains make it very difficult for customers.



The Future Of VR In South Africa
The first (and last) time I tried a VR headset was in 1996 when a developer showed me Duke Nukem 3D in 3D. (Thankfully I have a better track record for AR experiences.) For a while after that the technology seemed to stagnate, though behind the scenes - it's become apparent - people have been working on the hardware, software, and content for years to try to get it to the level that was promised in all those cyberpunk movies of the 1990s. I went along to Wednesday's meeting to find out where South Africa is with regards to VR development 20 years later. Are there people actually doing anything? What are our developers working on? Who's involved? Are we getting anywhere? Are there enough people to make a formalised community a worthwhile endeavour? Is our stuff any good? Is there a future for VR globally?

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

I happily left with answers to most of those questions. The only thing I don't know yet is if there is a future for VR globally. The hardware will have to be refined further and, as was noted by a number of the speakers on the night, content is king. Get that right and get the public to buy into it and you possibly have a necessary new tool for the home theatre (nevermind education) rather than another gimmick entertainment experience (again, think 3D home theatres, and 3D movies in general).

The South African Virtual-Reality Community Is Organising - And The Revolution Will Be Televised (In 360-Degree 3D)

The Bandwidth Barn has offered the community weekly use of its facilities, including the bandwidth, to have meetings and work on projects. If you're interested see the links below to join, whether it be to find out more just out of curiosity or because you want to toss ideas around, develop your skills, or collaborate on a project with like-minded individuals.

Virtual Reality South Africa: Official Site, Facebook, Twitter


Tags: #cape_town, #games, #screen, #speculative_fiction, #technology





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