New Dimensions – Exploring Virtual Reality in Africa

Ingrid Kopp, Senior Consultant at the Tribeca Film Institute describes herself on Twitter as “Endlessly thinking about documentaries, storytelling, audiences, technology, mobile, impact & engagement.” Recently, she’s been guest-curator of Virtual Reality work for the New Dimensions exhibition. i-Docs asked her to describe her involvement in the project.

Kopp - VR oculus

Ingrid writes: I was recently invited by Steven Markovitz at Big World Cinema to guest-curate an exhibition of virtual reality work for the New Dimensions exhibition as part of the African Futures festival at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have recently moved back to South Africa from the United States where I was head of the Interactive department at the Tribeca Film Institute.

Virtual reality was interesting to me in particular because of its mobile potential and in Africa mobile is everything. And let’s be honest, there’s a lot of money and attention in the VR space right now which means that it’s much easier to get people enthusiastic about it.

I’m still consulting for the Institute and was really keen to explore the potential for interactive storytelling in an African context. It would be very exciting to nurture this work here on the African continent and then see it represented more fully in our funding at TFI and in exhibition programmes like Storyscapes at the Tribeca Film Festival and elsewhere.

Kopp - Poster New DimensionNewDimensions-Poster

Before the exhibition we gathered together a group of interdisciplinary creatives from Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya and South Africa to explore how virtual reality might be incorporated into their work. We had game creators, filmmakers, fashion designers and musicians participating and this led to some rich explorations of the potential of VR in various contexts. Jessica Brillhart, Principle Filmmaker for VR at Google, led the 360 filmmaking part of the workshop with some really thoughtful ideas about how 360 challenges and stretches filmmakers used to working with “flatties.” Her work is very much grounded in her experience of trying things and seeing what works and she brought some hard-won practicality and insight to the workshop.

Zwischenablage01 resize

Oscar Raby and Katy Morrison from VRTOV led the part of the workshop devoted to real-time, interactive and positional VR, using an iPad scanning system to allow the participants to build projects in Unity very quickly with the aid of templates. It was important to me that we gave the workshop participants a sense of the different tools and workflows available. Many people coming from a film background are exploring the potential of 360 video in VR and much of the work is really impressive – Chris Milk and his team at VRSE for example and the beautifully-realised work that Felix and Paul are doing.

Right now we’re in a hype cycle with regards to VR so it is very important for filmmakers to think carefully about what VR can bring to the story they want to tell.

However, I’m also really interested in how filmmakers can use game engines like Unity and Unreal to create new kinds of truly interactive projects and Oscar and Katy show that this is possible without huge budgets. That said, different skill-sets within the creative teams are required for this and we made sure we had coders available to help make the magic happen in Unity. On the flip side, I also think this is a good time for people to experiment wildly and I want African storytellers to be part of this period of experimentation so that they can also be part of whatever the future of VR becomes.

Oscar Raby’s Assent

Oscar Raby’s Assent

The exhibition included a few interactive projects that we showed on the DK2, CLOUDS and Way To Go for example. We also had Oscar Raby’s Assent which is still one of my favourite pieces in VR. I think I love it so much because it shows how important the craft of storytelling is in creating a truly engaging VR experience. It is beautifully written and conceived and for me the jaggedness of the scans adds to the sense of memories and history making themselves felt in the present. We showed work on DK2s and Samsung Gear VRs. We also gave away a lot of Google Cardboards because we wanted to show that the headsets don’t need to be expensive and hard to find. That said, we rented a few smartphones that couldn’t handle the VR video pieces.

A teachable moment, given that most people in Africa don’t have access to smartphones, let alone smartphones advanced enough to handle VR. This will change. The future in Africa is mobile.


PANDORA – A 360 Degree VR Short Film

We included one piece made by an African team, Pandora by Jonathan Dotse and Kabiru Seidu, who also participated in the workshop. If we do a similar exhibition next year I very much hope that there will be many more African creators represented. I was also really disappointed that I wasn’t able to include any women in the exhibition and this is something that I definitely won’t do again. I’m keenly aware of how exclusion gets baked into new technologies and I know that as a curator and facilitator I have to work harder to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Some takeaways:

  1. Explore the potential for mobile VR and cheap headsets in Africa.
  2. Work harder to curate work that reflects the diversity of work that is out there – we need a plurality of stories in VR just as we need a plurality of stories in other mediums.
  3. Build capacity for VR projects to be created outside of the usual pockets of attention and funding.
  4. Create environments for cross-disciplinary experimentation – Selly Raby Kane, a fashion designer from Senegal, created an extraordinary, surreal piece in Unity. Jim Chuchu, a multi-talented artist from Kenya, brought his many different skills to the VR universe and managed to create an incredibly moving interactive Unity piece about refugees in a single afternoon.
  5. Show filmmakers the potential of real-time, interactive VR as well as 360 filmmaking.
  6. Show the full spectrum of VR creation – from cheap and DIY to Red Dragon, f*ck-off expensive.