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Where technology meets magic

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Advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic, a legendary author once said. At Disney World, the two have been combined in a dazzling way, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The location is Disney World in Orlando. The scene is the World of Avatar, the newest major attraction at the theme park, based on the most successful movie ever.

Avatar lends itself to superlatives.

We are entering the most realistic fantasy world yet created as a theme park ride, the Na’vi River. Here, luminescent vegetation brushes our boat, glittering creatures bound past us, and the elusive Na’vi people lurk in the background.

“I helped create that sentry,” says my traveling companion, pointing to a magnificent, eerily real Na’vi guard that watches over the boats that brave this river. Even with this reminder of the manufactured nature of the scenery, the illusion persists.

“Arthur C Clarke one said that any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says my guide, Ron Martin, referring to the great science fiction author who wrote, among other, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ron himself is something of a specialist in mixing technology and magic. He is vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, which has consulted on some of the great science fiction movies of our times.

This division of Panasonic has collaborated closely with movie-makers in the research and development of visual image processing technologies. It also works with cinemas in cutting edge projection technology. This legacy was brought strongly to bear on the World of Avatar and the planet Pandora.

“Our projection technology enables this lifelike imaging on the Na’vi River,” says Martin. “We sat down with Disney Imagineering, we listened to their creative vision, and we applied technology that satisfied that vision. We don’t move them to what we want, we make technology that enables the creative vision. It’s what I call technology under creative control.

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“Anywhere you see something non-physical, a projected image, that is our projection technology. All the physical elements, the lighting, the plant life that is illuminated, are built by Disney. But the characters and animals you see moving, and the multi-layer environment that creates the illusion of depth and looking deep into the jungle, is all Panasonic projection technology.”

The end-result is, as intended, both other-worldly and visually compelling. It is designed to elicit both oohs and aahs at the dazzling visual feast, and a sense of wonder at the exquisite detail, complexity and richness of the alien environment.

The biggest surprise of all is the extent to which the technology behind it is entirely invisible. It stands in stark contrast to “traditional” Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, where decades-old animatronics – in effect robots programmed with limited movements – are used to bring pirates and their  environment to life.

Or, at least, a semblance of life. The creaking technology is all but visible, as the characters make their stilted and jerky movements.

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“The key is that we don’t want to be pushing technology for technology’s sake, but for the story’s sake,” says Martin. “If we achieve that goal, the guest is going to respond, gasping for joy, rather than saying. ‘Gee, that looks fake’. Everything we do in this arena is to that end, to not being a distraction, to make the story the thing.”

The World of Avatar is simultaneously evidence of how realistic ally a movie world can be replicated as an experience, and the beginning of a new wave of immersive theme park attractions. This year Disney World will open Toy Story Land, in which the visitor appears to have been shrunk to the size of a toy. Next year, it will debut Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which will be the theme park culmination of Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise.

“More and more, that level of entertainment is media-driven, so what we want is media that fulfils the creative vision,” says Martin. “It includes issues like resolution, brightness, and colour imagery, so that imaging blends into environments precisely. In a theatrical story-telling environment, precision is everything. When we come in and blend that into a physical  environment in a theme park, everything must blend in and complete the story rather than be a distraction from the story.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

“Projection will continue to feature heavily in this process. These are contributory technologies to the idea of taking the cinema world and turning it into physical worlds you explore. The evolution of projection has to go forward, and brightness and colour accuracy and colour reproduction are a big part of the competitive nature of what we want to achieve.”

Having worked on ground-breaking titles like Avatar and Gravity, Martin is no stranger to both the imagination and technology it takes to create new worlds. He won’t go into detail on the specific technology that is used, but is happy to elaborate on his work on the original Avatar movie.

“The Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory worked very closely with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in the development of the 3D imaging systems for Avatar, both on the cinema in terms of the specifications for the 3D cinema and for home video and the production of 3D Blu-ray and 3D televisions.

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“We’ve worked very closely with many film-makers. Much of the movement in home video in particular and in theatrical presentation was done through some of the work of Panasonic through research and development at the Hollywood lab.”

Martin is a personal friend of Cameron and has worked with him since the making of the record-breaking Titanic movie, but is reticent about elaborating on his personal role.

“It’s a collaborative effort when we sit down with directors and cinematographers and post-production teams, to determine work-flows, colour correction systems and presentation systems, transmission systems to get the data out to the theatre, or out to the home user, whether in packaged media or streeaming services. This is part of Panasonic’s broad reach of technology in the entertainment sector.”

Ultimately, the technology will go beyond movies and theme parks, spilling over into destination resorts, museums and the like. But don’t expect an overnight revolution, Martin advises.

“Technology moves at a slow developmental incremental pace and, the smarter we can be about that evolution, working with creative companies, whether it’s on the theatrical cinema side or the theme park side or the home video side, it’s an advantage for us to be part of that.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

Inside Pandora

The World of Avatar, an expansion of Disney World’s’s Animal Kingdom, sees a recreation of the The Valley of Mo’ara on the planet of Pandora. The back-story is that the valley is undergoing a rebirth long after a destructive mining operation known as the Resources Development Administration (RDA) ceased operation. In other words, the theme park attraction is a sequel to the Avatar movie, which ends with the shutting down of the RDA operations.The company provided the following highlights of what visitors can see:

* The iconic floating mountains in the Valley of Mo’ara – there are 22 – peak at about 130 feet above the valley floor. Sharp-eyed adventurers will see Pandoran Stingbats nesting in the mountains.  A team of more than 60 artisans from the U.S., Peru, France, Portugal, Japan and Ireland contributed to creating the art-scape of the floating mountains.

* On Pandora, a diverse ecosystem is rebalancing as a variety of colorful plant life flourishes.
Plants have names like Puffball Tree, Dapophet, Vein Pod, Scorpion Thistle, Episoth and Flaska Reclinata.

* Many plants are bioluminescent, with internal lighting or material that makes them glow. Plants are interactive. Guests can see and sense the energy of the plants that moves in waves.

* No matter where guests go in Pandora, they will feel the presence of many animal species: The pack hunter, the Viperwolf with six legs and opposable thumbs;  the Direhorse, a six-legged domesticated riding animal; Mountain Banshees, with wingspans averaging approximately 45 feet.

* At Avatar Flight of Passage, 48 guests at a time can enter a state-of-the-art theater and board mountain banshees as avatars for the ride of their lives across Pandora.
Immersion in the world of Pandora is complete thanks to a projection screen 69 feet wide and more than 97 feet high.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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