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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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Smash hits the
Nintendo Switch

Super Smash Bros. delivers what the fans wanted in the latest “Ultimate” instalment, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest addition to the popular Nintendo Smash series, has landed on the Nintendo Switch with a bang, selling 5-million copies in the first week of its release. The game has been long-anticipated since the console’s release, as many fans consider iy to be a Nintendo staple. And the wait was well worth it.

It features 74 playable fighters, 108 stages, almost 1300 Spirit characters to collect while playing, and a single-player Adventure mode that took about three days (or 28 hours) of gameplay to complete. The game offers far more gameplay than its predecessors, making it the Smash game that gives its players the best bang for their buck.

For those new to the game, the goal is to fight opponents and build up their damage score (draining their health) to knock them off the stage eventually. This makes the game seem chaotic, as many players jump around the platforms as if they were on quicksand, in order to avoid being hit by the other players.

It also services two kinds of players: the competitive and the casual.

Competitive players can be matched on the online service by skill ranking to enjoy playing with similarly high-skilled opponents. This is especially important in e-sports training for the game, and for players wanting to master combos against other human players. The casual gamer is also catered for, with eight-player chaos and button-mashing to see who comes out luckiest. This segment is also important for those wanting to learn how to play.

Training mode is also a place to go for those learning to play. It offers “CPU” players that are graded by intensity to train as a single player to learn a character’s moves, combos and general fighting style. More challenging CPU players can also be used by competitive players to train when there isn’t a Wi-Fi connection available.

Direct Play features in this game, allowing two players with two Switch consoles to play against each other over a direct connection – no Wi-Fi needed. This is especially useful to those who want to have a social gaming element on the go, similar to that of the cable connector of the Gameboy.

Click here to read Bryan Turner review of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

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Win Funko Fortnite in Vinyl

Gadget and Gammatek have nine Funko Fortnite figurines to give away.

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A Funko Pop figurine based on a character set is indicative of reaching the heights of pop culture. It is no surprise, then, that the world’s biggest online game, Fortnite, has its own line of Funko Pop figurines. The Funkos are modeled on the characters in game, including Drift, Ragnarok, Dark Vanguard, Volar, Tracera Ops, and Sparkle Specialist.

Now, local Funko distributor Gammatek has released the Fortnite figurines in South Africa. To celebrate, Gadget and Gammatek are giving away a set of three Funko Fortnite figurines to each of three readers (9 figurines in total). To enter, first click on your favourite Funko Pop on the next page and post the Tweet that appears. Then, follow Gadget on Twitter.

You can put the tweet in your own words, but entries must have the competition’s hashtag (#FunkoFortnite) and mention @GadgetZA to be considered valid.

Click here to select the Funko Fortnite character you want to tweet.

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