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SA takes to global VR stage

A brother and sister team from South Africa has showcased the country’s talents in virtual reality production at the world’s biggest animation festival, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Imagine finding yourself submerged in a world of magical sea creatures, talking mushrooms and forests of impossible trees. Imagine you can travel through this world, experiencing more fantastical sights as you go.

This is the virtual reality (VR) world of The Lost Botanist, created by a brother and sister team who were raised on a farm near the tiny town of Kokstad. That would be remarkable in itself, but Ree and Rick Treweek startled the VR industry last month when The Lost Botanist became the first VR production from Africa to screen in competition at Annecy, the world’s most prestigious animation festival, held annually in France for the past 60 years.

The creation was produced jointly by Rick’s Johannesburg-based technology research and development studio, Eden Labs, and Ree’s creative studio, Tulips & Chimneys, in Cape Town.

Just nine VR experiences were selected for VR@Annecy, from 90 submissions made from around the world. The projects included some of the biggest names in the industry, including Gymnasia, from the Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios; It’s All Over, based on a Neil Gaiman book, Doctor Who: The Runaway, and the overall winner, Gloomy Eyes, narrated by Colin Farrell.

“It put us slap bang on a global stage,” says Rick, talking in his Johannesburg studio this week. “Being selected for VR@Annecy was our biggest accomplishment yet, especially against films with huge budgets and massive directors, the giants of the industry, and here comes a little South African crew no one had heard of.”

Rick says the full name of the studio, Eden Labs Africa, was deliberately used with Africa attached at the end to highlight the potential of the continent in the world of technology creativity.

“I believe the skills and talent of this country and of Africa as a whole are completely unknown. We’re often a forgotten territory and having something like this at Annecy, especially with big players in the game, was so important.

“We believe the big future of VR is education and immersive learning. We talk of digital leapfrogging, but the mistake everyone makes is that if someone is not used to computers, the hardest thing is teaching them to use a computer and mouse, whereas VR removes that completely. You don’t have to be technically skilled to consume VR content. Even with YouTube, to get to that video, you have to have the fundamentals of using a computer. That goes away with VR.”

Rick has worked with world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge, whose foundation, The Centre for the Less Good Idea, invited Eden Labs to bring its creative technology to the work of 12 artists working in traditional media.

He had previously been a developer of mobile games and apps, and worked in Singapore for eight years, focusing on 3D printing. There, he immersed himself in the “maker” movement of shared knowledge in creativity.

“The maker movement is whole new mindset of learning that says, when you learn something new, you ask if anyone else in the community is interested. In Singapore, 3D printing was amazing, but everyone was using it for privileged stuff like making robots. My big belief was that using it in Africa, we could create disruptive tools.

“With my long experience in developing apps, VR was a short jump for me, but the 3D printing side was so exciting, I moved back to South Africa and joined the Tshimologong precinct. What Prof Barry Dwolatzky was doing there was in line with what we wanted to do, with the ‘tech can save Africa’ approach.”

Pic: Arthur Goldstuck

Eden Labs is taking its homegrown philosophy a step further. While it is not reinventing VR headsets, it is certainly recreating them. The Treweeks have designed cases that turn Oculus Go VR headsets into elaborate and beautiful masks with handles that allow them to be used without having to be strapped around a head. The masks are artworks in themselves, and integrate almost seamlessly into the world of The Lost Botanist.

“We noticed that at conferences and shows, it’s often quite dark and gloomy and people don’t want to put on headsets,” says Rick. “So we wanted The Lost Botanist headset to look like a part of the project; the outside is as important as the headset. It’s designed as an owl and really makes everything feel a lot more playful.”

In further testament to his commitment to both VR and 3D printing, the masks were designed in virtual reality, using the Oculus Medium 3D sculpting package. Eden Labs has also developed a version of the VR headsets for business use, with a handle attached for quick viewing. It is currently being manufactured in China.

Rick has collaborated with Johannesburg artist Mary Sibande, who uses painting and sculptures to explore identity in a postcolonial South African and to critique stereotypical depictions of women. Appropriately, he built a VR headset mask in the form of Mary’s face, allowing viewers to experience an exhibition of her work almost through her own eyes.

The next step, say the Treweeks, is to raise funding for an extended version of The Lost Botanist, designed specifically for the new Oculus Quest VR headset.

“We think the Oculus Quest is going to be the beginning of VR growing up,” says Rick.

“This is real VR now, with six degrees of freedom so you can walk around.”

Rick believes the market is starved of VR content, and The Lost Botanist will feed into massive pent-up demand. He should know: mobile games created by his first company, Breakdesign, were downloaded more than 16-million times.

“Working in VR now feels a lot like mobile games in 2007; like everything is coming full circle for me.”

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

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AWS gives SMEs R365m to build cloud companies in SA

Amazon Web Services works with Department of Trade and Industry on Equity Equivalent Investment Program to help more South African businesses innovate in the cloud

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Amazon Web Services (AWS), an Amazon.com company, has announced the launch of the AWS Equity Equivalent Investment Program (AWS EEIP). Designed by AWS South Africa and Amazon Data Services South Africa, the EEIP will see over R365-million invested in the development of black-owned South African small businesses within the Information Communications Technology (ICT) sector.

The intention is to support them to become cloud computing experts using the AWS Partner Network (APN). EEIP is a program of the Department of Trade and Industry (dti), aimed at providing multinational companies an opportunity to take part in the development of South African black-owned small businesses and to contribute towards the broad-based black economic empowerment of South Africa.

The AWS EEIP is a seven year program that will support the growth of new black-owned small businesses, helping them to develop their skills in advanced technologies such as cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Machine Learning (ML), and mobile technologies. 

“The AWS EEIP will lead to the development of numerous highly skilled jobs in the local economy,” said Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel. “The intention of the program is to give the black-owned small businesses the knowledge, resources, and skills to be successful.  This will enable them to provide professional services to organisations, in both the private and public sectors, supporting them with their ICT strategy and helping them to take advantage of cloud computing and other digital technologies in order to innovate and grow. We seek to develop local businesses and ensure net job creation in the South African economy.”

The AWS EEIP will support 100% black-owned small businesses through an 18-24-month enterprise development and incubation program. AWS will provide training and education and support the development of these businesses’ technical expertise in cloud computing – resulting in new AWS Certified Developers and Solutions Architects. These businesses will also receive business enablement support, such as exposure to industry leaders, coaching, mentorship, and funding, to help take their business to the next stage of growth. As these businesses complete their training, and gain AWS competencies, they will go up a tier in the APN, becoming Select or Advanced Partners. Upon completion of the program, the businesses will have access to AWS’s ecosystem of millions of active customers, of every size, across virtually every industry around the world. AWS says successful completion of the programme will also enable the businesses to have exposure to opportunities beyond that of AWS.

“We have been blown away with the high quality of technical talent we have already seen in South Africa and are excited to see the creativity and unique thinking that the AWS EEIP will now drive,” said Prabashni Naidoo, a director at AWS South Africa. “Through this new program, we are committed to producing a new generation of highly skilled and productive black-owned South African small businesses.These new APN Partners will help create limitless opportunities for our customers, helping them to innovate and further contribute to economic growth of South Africa.”  

About Amazon Web Services

For 13 years, Amazon Web Services has been the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform. AWS offers over 165 fully featured services for compute, storage, databases, networking, analytics, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), mobile, security, hybrid, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), media, and application development, deployment, and management. The services are provided from 69 Availability Zones (AZs) within 22 geographic regions, with announced plans for 13 more Availability Zones and four more AWS Regions in Indonesia, Italy, South Africa, and Spain.

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Girls get 50,000 toy cars to combat stereotypes

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“That’s for boys, not for girls” – a social stigma Mercedes-Benz USA and Mattel are determined to change, and they are hoping that donating 50,000 toy cars can help. Kicking off today for National STEM/STEAM Day, 50,000 young girls across the nation will engage in programs to challenge gender stereotypes that research shows can impact decisions later in life. It’s all part of “No Limits,” an initiative created by Mercedes-Benz in partnership with Mattel and the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP), a network of organizations that encourages girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

The first “No Limits” programs launch today with special workshops in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York City, where thousands of young children will be inspired to think outside of the box when it comes to career aspirations. Through February 2020, girls across the U.S., through more than 100 organizations, will engineer toy racetracks, design cars, engage with female role models and attend STEM workshops through programs designed to expand how they see their future.

As a tangible reminder that they can do anything they set their minds to, MBUSA and Mattel will gift 50,000 Matchbox die-cast toy replicas of a very special Mercedes-Benz 220SE to participating children. It was in this car that Ewy Rosqvist defied all odds to become the first woman to compete in and win one of the most grueling races, the Argentinian Grand Prix, shattering records and the notion that women could not compete.

“Whatever they aspire to be – an astronaut, engineer, judge, nurse, even the President, we want all children to dream big, dream bold and never give up on that dream,” said Mark Aikman, general manager of marketing services for MBUSA. “We’ve seen that stories like Ewy’s – championing women trailblazers and achievers – can have a big impact by calling into question the gender stereotypes that children may inadvertently adopt.”

In fact, according to the National Science Board, women only represent 29% of the current science and engineering workforce. When asked their reasons for not majoring in STEM, young women often cite a lack of encouragement and role models.

“The No Limits initiative is important to the future success of our young girls,” said Karen Peterson founder and CEO of the NGCP. “Demand for workers with STEM-based skills is rapidly growing, yet women are still significantly underrepresented in these fields. We know that gender associations are formed at a very young age. We applaud Mercedes-Benz and Mattel in their efforts to breakdown the gender stereotypes that keep young girls from engaging in STEM studies.”

Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz released a video capturing young girls designating an assortment of traditionally gendered toys. After being shown the short film, Ewy Rosqvist: An Unexpected Champion, each girl has a visible attitude shift towards toys they previously identified as just “for boys.”

Last month, Digital Girl, Inc., a Brooklyn-based non-profit dedicated to empowering the underserved youth of New York City, especially young girls, to pursue studies and careers in STEM fields, tested this theory with similar results. A new video documents the results as the girls realize that they can be the next generation of female trailblazers and they themselves talk about the need to inspire more girls.

“Our goal is to inspire children to imagine all that they can become and break down gender stereotypes in the toy aisle with purpose-driven programs like this,” said Amanda Moldavon, Senior Director, Vehicles Brand Creative. “Most people don’t know that the creator of Matchbox made the first vehicle for his daughter who was only allowed to bring toys to school that fit inside a matchbox. So, from its origin, it has been an inclusive way for kids to explore the world around them.”

More than 100 organizations across the country will participate in No Limits including Atlanta Public Schools, Digital Girl, Inc., Beyond the Bell, among others. A list of all participating organizations can be found here. A discussion guide is available for those who have an opportunity to encourage and mentor young children and would like to help advance this conversation.

In addition to the toy cars that will be gifted by MBUSA and Mattel (also in support of closing the Dream Gap) through the National Girls Collaborative, the Ewy Matchbox toy replica will be sold in stores nationwide beginning in December. Follow the No Limits initiative on social using #GirlsHaveNoLimits.

Both “No Limits” videos were produced by R/GA, New York.

About Ewy Rosqvist

Ewy Rosqvist is a Swedish racing champion who in 1962 made history for being the first woman to enter and win one of the toughest rallies in the world. After watching her husband race for years, she decided to take it up herself and entered the Argentinian Grand Prix – a gruelling three-day journey across rough terrain. Ewy was ridiculed for entering the race and told she wouldn’t be able to complete the course. Not only did she finish, she went on to be the first person to win every stage of the race, set a speed record and beat the previous champion by over three hours.

About Mercedes-Benz USA

Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA), the sales and marketing arm for Mercedes-Benz in the United States and headquartered in Atlanta, is responsible for the distribution, marketing and customer service for all Mercedes-Benz products in the United States from the sporty A-Class sedan to the flagship S-Class and the Mercedes-AMG GT R.

MBUSA’s philanthropic focus is on educating and empowering youth. On a national level, the company supports Laureus Sport for Good which uses sports to help at-risk youth and the Johnny Mac Soldier’s Fund which provides scholarships to children of the fallen military.

In Atlanta, MBUSA is involved with over 50 organizations in its effort to educate and empower the next generation to achieve success and address local needs in its community, particularly Atlanta’s Westside, the area surrounding the Mercedes-Benz Stadium that includes under-resourced neighbourhoods. MBUSA has won numerous awards for its community efforts including, A Gold Stevie® Award for its Greatness Lives Here campaign, Corporate Champion Tree recognition from Trees Atlanta and a Community Impact Award from the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

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