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VR gets real across Africa

February 10th, 2017
Virtual Reality became mainstream in several African countries including Nigeria last year. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD spoke to the founder of Nigerian based Imisi 3D, JUDITH OKONKWO, about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.
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Virtual Reality (VR) as a technology seemed to arrive last year in several different African countries, including Nigeria and South Africa. The innovators who are working on it believe that because the field is currently wide open, there’s the opportunity to get in at the front of the queue this time around. Russell Southwood spoke to the founder of Imisi 3D, Judith Okonkwo about what she’s doing and the prospects for this technology.

Imisi 3D’s founder Judith Okonkwo came back to Lagos from the UK in 2014:”I was energized by the entrepreneurship scene and tech start-ups. I worked for Andela where I saw a lot of talented young people on its programme perform really well over 4-6 months. I thought there was a lot of potential.”

“VR was coming down in price. The Oculus Rift ands Google Cardboard changed the game. it was suddenly wide open to get into, particularly here in Nigeria. We had an opportunity to define how the tech was going to be used.”

She started in July 2016 with her first event, working with Lagos Hub and ccHub to create a showcase based on 50 people. She involved a VR consultant on Skype to provide advice and mentoring on the use of the 360 degree cameras:”One thing we committed to do was to build a community of content creators in Nigeria.”

“The resources (to create VR) are expensive but we bridge that gap with things like equipment and books and so on. The CEO of ccHub was a mentor and was very enthusiastic. He said ‘You need to attract people to Yaba to see what’s going on with the technology’. We had 100 people through the doors in the first week.  We want to create a community of people building VR content. We want to become known at being good at creating VR solutions in Nigeria.”

It held its first VR hackathon in Nigeria in November 2016 looking at areas like healthcare, education and tourism. The winners combined use of Samsung’s Gear VR with Leap Motion, which allowed hand motions and gestures for control.:”It was about using these (programmes) to teach people how to code and getting Gear and Leap Motion to work together.”

One of the runners up produced a gamified version of conception where the player acted like the sperm:”It was very exciting and addictive and the team intends to add a lot more content to it.” Another team created an app called Go There that allows the user to virtually visit Nigerian tourist destinations and then be able to go on and book a holiday.

So how well developed is VR in Nigeria?:”You come across people who’ve bought Google Cardboard and Gear VR. At an event in September last year I noticed a young man playing with his phone and a VR app. He didn’t have a VR headset. I tapped him on the shoulder and said come down to Yaba. I’ve even seen people attempt to make Google Cardboard themselves.”

“But VR is quite limited here. What they can do and local content available is limited but that will change. There are VR cockpit chairs in malls in Lagos that are probably Oculus-driven. The people we’re attracting are interested in creating local content. In terms of equipment, it depends on what you want. Samsung Gear VR, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Generic VR headsets, you can buy on Jumia and Konga….In terms of makers, there are the teams who won the hackathon, another guy who does VR for architecture and real estate and film-makers looking at 360 film-making.”

This initial initiative is now leading on to other activities. It now has a VR for Schools project for education at the bottom of the pyramid, involving local schools:”We’re turning assumptions (about what can be done) on their head… I’m quite passionate about VR for education. We’re running a pilot with content that exists but it would be better with locally created content”.

“We need to build up the skills for worlds class VR content. People are already asking me are there VR developers here. We’re planning to support the teams that took part in the hackathon to put their apps up on the Oculus store. The market is in its infancy but it’s ready to grow. We’re looking for R & D opportunities. It’s not enough just to explore what was happening last year. I want to look at the convergence between VR and Artificial Intelligence.”

So what’s the business model for what she’s been doing?:”It’s been a mix so far. We’ve bootstrapped with support from Facebook and equipment vendors and we’re exploring different models, primarily income from the services we provide. We think there opportunities for collaborating with people across the continent with specialist skills developing in different regions.’

* Russell Southwood is editor of Smart Monkey TV.  To subscribe to its web TV channel, visit http://www.youtube.com/user/SmartMonkeyTV/videos

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