The Goethe-Institut in Parkwood, Johannesburg is playing host to a virtual reality (VR) exhibition called New Dimensions this weekend, and it’s pretty darn amazing. From interactive documentaries and music videos to a VR news broadcast and photo-realistic CGI projects, New Dimensions brilliantly demonstrates the possibilities VR presents for immersive, narrative storytelling — not that we weren’t enjoying the roller-coaster simulations, mind you.
New Dimensions forms part of the African Futures festival, which takes place concurrently in Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Berlin between 29 and 31 October. The exhibition’s focus is applications for VR beyond gaming, education or simulations, but simultaneously reminds one just how rich the possibilities for it are in each of these fields.
Some of the work on offer includes “Ethiocolor 360”, a VR music video filmed on the roof of the National Theatre in Addis Ababa using only a single GoPro camera, the highly intimate “Strangers with Patrick Watson” — a VR video shot in Canadian musician Patrick Watson’s studio, and interactive documentary “Clouds”, which mixes interviews with digital artists with a video game-like interaction mechanic.
The programme is curated by Ingrid Kopp, who works for the Tribeca Film Institute, and Steven Markovitz, the CEO of film production company Big World Cinema. “One of the reasons we’re doing this is to find out who’s doing VR work in Africa,” Kopp says. “Before the event we ran a workshop with creators from across the continent, and one of the amazing projects we found was the piece ‘Pandora’. The team behind that went as far as making their own VR headset with built-in headphones.”
Kopp says the DIY ethos that many VR enthusiasts display is part of what makes it so appealing to her, along with the sharing culture that permeates the burgeoning scene. One of the things New Dimensions hopes to achieve is bringing people with an interest in VR together and showing them what’s possible with the medium.
The African Futures Festival is fundamentally about looking at new ways to tell stories, and Markovitz says this is what led to the use of VR content for the film component of the event rather than the usual selection of short films.
“I thought, here’s a new platform in its infancy and a chance for African filmmakers to get involved at ground level,” Markovitz says. “The VR I’d seen of Africa was generally of wildlife or, in one instance, Ebola, and the work I do is about challenging precisely that sort of dominant narrative. This isn’t about Africa as safari destination or as basket case, nor is it about ‘Africa rising’. Instead, it’s about everything in between.”
Content for the exhibition has come from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Kenya and South Africa and been produced by filmmakers, photographers, a sci-fi writer, a fashion designer and even game animators from Kenya. “Often filmmakers or photographers aren’t always best suited to VR because they think in frames,” Markovitz says. “The idea was to bring this mixed group together, run a workshop and then commission them to produce new work so that by this time next year there’ll be a selection of fresh material to show.”
Markovitz says the initiative is about “building real capacity to develop VR across the African continent”. While he admits some people will look for more commercial applications of the technology he says there will always be those who want to use it for artistic ends and that New Dimensions hopes to help in creating opportunities for that to flourish.
“By commissioning new work and taking it around Africa we’re joining the dots between the exhibition, new productions and touring,” Kopp says. “With a smartphone, Wi-Fi and [Google] Cardboard you have VR. For Africa, that’s going to be huge, especially when companies begin optimising gear for the African market.”
Kopp says although VR is decidedly nascent, that didn’t seem like a good enough reason to put off showing the work that is out there. “We have to sow the seeds now. We can’t just wait for things to be right,” she says. “It’s hard to talk about VR. It’s like talking about colour to someone who’s never seen it. The best way to increase interest in it is by showing it to people.”
Digitising the real
One of the works on display is “Assent” by Oscar Raby. This VR documentary is based on events surrounding the Caravan of Death, a campaign that saw military detainees in Chile executed following the country’s 1973 coup. Raby’s father was an army officer at the time and experienced the brutality firsthand.
Much of Raby’s work is created using a device that fits onto an iPad or iPhone called an iSense, a portable version of a similar technology called Matterport that’s used to map interiors, often for industrial applications.
“It’s Kinect-like tech,” Raby explains, referring to Microsoft’s Kinect, a movement-tracking camera developed for the company’s Xbox gaming console. “There’s an infrared sensor that detects volume. The iSense projects an infrared matrix of dots which gets deformed by a physical object in front of it. The sensor captures the formation, calculates the differences between a regular matrix and the deformed one, and maps the form of an object.”
Raby showed Stuff how the iSense could be used to create a 3D model of an apple on a table, in full colour, in a matter or seconds. “It allows for a rough-and-ready version of reality to be captured very quickly,” he says. “It’s not just an abstraction, like CGI, it’s a digital replica of a physical object.” The iSense is finding uses not just in VR but in the growing 3D-printing market and its accompanying hobbyist community.
This ability to map spaces or model objects in 3D rapidly with little technical expertise or capital outlay — an iSense costs around $500 — means creating VR content is easier than most people think. Add technology like Samsung’s Gear VR headsets, which use smartphones for the display component, and Oculus Rift and you have a recipe for rapid advances in the technology and the creative work produced with it.
With that in mind, we can’t wait for next year’s exhibition.
New Dimensions is on at the Goethe-Institut from 29 to 31 October between 10h00 and 17h00 each day and entrance is free. You can find the full African Futures Festival programme here.