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SA VR team beats world to great migration

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Virtual reality is still far from the South African mainstream, but a new documentary will help give it a kick-start, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Only a lucky few people ever get to witness the great wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara national reserve in Kenya. Even fewer have been in the heart of that migration, surrounded by thousands of the animals.

Now, the producers of a ground breaking new documentary hope to bring people into the  midst of the experience, at least virtually.

Exodus: The Great Migration is the world’s first virtual reality (VR) documentary of what has been described as one of the greatest natural phenomena on Earth. And a  small studio in suburban Johannesburg, Deep VR, beat some of the best funded international film-makers to this landmark.

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Their achievement goes further: they also claim the world’s first narrated VR wildlife documentary.

“We decided that we couldn’t just wait for the future to happen, we have to become co-creators of it,” said Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, CEO of Deep VR. “We asked ourselves, how can we use this technology to foster appreciation, education and conservation for Mother Nature in a way no technology has ever allowed before? In a crazed leap of faith, we set out on the ultimate creative challenge for our first original piece: film the greatest mammal migration on the plains of the Maasai Mara, in VR.”

Grech-Cumbo has been a VR evangelist since long before commercial headsets were available to consumers He founded Deep VR in 2014, along with Telmo dos Reis, head of post-production.  It specialises in producing high-end 360 degree video in 2D, known as monoscopic for the fact that both eyes see the same image, meaning there is no sense of depth, and in 3D, referred to as stereoscopic, meaning it gives a perception of depth. The first gives the sense of merely viewing a virtual world, while the second gives the sense of being inside that world. It has made commercial VR in 10 countries using its own self-designed camera systems. The Msasai Mara was the company’s biggest challenge yet.

“Having to self-fund this passion project was a humbling experience,” says Grech-Cumbo. “We went to the US to pitch Exodus to a well-known wildlife broadcaster, but got turned down. We experimented with a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise enough capital for a few plane tickets to Kenya. That was just enough for us to decide, to heck with it, let’s commit.”

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What followed was a case study in all that can go wrong on a film shoot. From authorities that wouldn’t cooperate to equipment that wouldn’t perform as expected to animals that did not conform to a timetable, it was a production that should never have been pulled off.

But, last week at the Circa gallery in Rosebank, the documentary finally saw its local premiere. The gallery was converted into a pop-up cinema for the screening of a documentary-about-a-documentary, which took viewers behind the scenes of the production – in regular 2D cinema.  The short film, Made in the Mara, was directed by American film-maker Amy Montalvo, who journeyed with the Deep VR crew into the Maasai Mara.

During the making of Exodus, 360-degree cameras were placed at strategic points on the migration route, supported by flying drones equipped with high-definition cameras. Together, they captured the frenzy and the fascination of the migration, almost eliciting the smell of the dust thrown up by the wildebeest.

The audience at Circa was fitted with Samsung Gear VR headsets, to experience the VR documentary. Public screenings were due to be held at the same venue.

This will be the first in a series of wildlife documentaries by Deep VR. The experience and success of Exodus has led to the establishment of a wildlife division at the company, aimed at “telling original, self-funded stories about natural history, wildlife and the environment”.

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To start with, it will film mass migrations of mammals, birds, invertebrates and insects across the globe. The most challenging of these is likely to be the story of the Amur falcon, a small raptor that breeds in Siberia, Mongolia and northern China. It then migrates in flocks across India and over the sea to South Africa.

The episode, to be called Exodus: Amur Falcons, will not only trace this 6 000km journey, but also introduce South Africans to a little-known aspect of their widlflife heritage.

* Further information about public screenings, as well as the VR documentary, Exodus: The Great Migration, and the Made in the Mara short film, can be viewed online at www.deepvr.co.za/exodus.

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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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