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VR gets real across Africa

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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.

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

Africa News

Africa gets broadband boost

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ITU and Nexpedience, a supplier of proprietary point-to-multipoint broadband infrastructure, are partnering to bring broadband access to Africa.

Under the terms of the deal, Nexpedience will provide 180 new Expedience base stations worth USD 1 million, to be deployed in six nations across the continent. The first nation to benefit from the new infrastructure is Burundi, with deployments also planned for Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Mali, Rwanda and Swaziland.

Designed to withstand extreme meteorological conditions and capable of providing up to 32 kilometres of sector coverage, Nexpedience’s base stations have been specifically designed for rural deployment.

ITU’s Wireless Broadband Network in Africa project aims to develop and implement wireless broadband connectivity and applications that will provide free or low-cost digital access for schools, hospitals, and under-served populations in rural and remote areas Africa-wide.

At the signing of the agreement in Geneva, Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) emphasized the need to make developing countries part of the global broadband revolution: ‚”This partnership represents another important element in ITU’s efforts to bring broadband technology to the world even in the poorest nations. I am confident that this new partnership will accelerate broadband uptake right across the African continent, bringing the power of high-speed connectivity to users everywhere, from big cities to small villages.‚”

Kiriako Vergos, CEO of Nexpedience said: ‚”Giving access to broadband technology to underserved populations in Africa is of great importance to us. There are enormous benefits to be derived from a ‚’broadband-seed’ deployment strategy, and we decided to partner with ITU because we know that the organization has the team in place to get it done.‚”

ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Tour√© said the new agreement is a ‚”major step forward in getting Africa connected‚”. Dr Tour√© led the establishment of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010, which has the aim of putting broadband at the heart of the global development agenda.

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Nokia backs tech hubs for developing world

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Nokia, AppCampus and infoDev are collaborating with mobile innovation hubs across Africa, Asia and Latin America to act as scouts for local talent.

Nokia, AppCampus and infoDev, a global innovation program of the World Bank, have announced a collaboration with mobile innovation hubs across Africa, Asia and Latin America – a move that will empower these hubs to act as scouts and agents for local talent, fast-tracking their access to AppCampus funding.

AppCampus was established in 2012 as a mobile application accelerator program managed by Aalto University in Finland. With an 18 million euro joint investment between Microsoft and Nokia, the aim is to foster mobile application development on Windows Phone and any other Nokia platform.

The announcement earmarks part of that investment fund for twenty six awards per annum for the best mobile innovation ideas to be made via the mobile innovation hub network, starting with infoDev’s mobile application labs in South Africa, Kenya, Armenia and Vietnam, as well as mobile application laboratories in Egypt (TIEC), Nigeria (CC Hub) and Mexico. The value of each award ranges from 20,000 Euro (US$ 26,000) to 70,000 Euro (US$ 90,000) depending on the complexity of the solution or business model behind the idea.

‚”By working jointly with the mobile innovation hubs, we are able to connect more effectively with local developers in emerging markets and provide support in terms of funding, especially for locally relevant innovations,‚” says Pekka Sivonen, Head of AppCampus. ‚”Although the criteria to access the AppCampus funding remains the same, with ideas needing to be original, competitive and scalable, the advantage is faster processing and the mentorship provided by these innovation hubs.‚”

The hubs and mLabs will be responsible for scouting talent and vetting ideas to be submitted to the global pool. infoDev’s mLabs foster regional entrepreneurship, employment and competitiveness by providing open spaces where developers can find training, mentoring, technical expertise and access to financing. In a short time, mLab-supported startups have brought over 120 commercial apps to market The best new entries from this network will compete against each other each quarter for the available awards.

‚”Nokia, working closely with infoDev, has supported the establishment and operation of a number of mLabs across emerging markets in support of local developers,‚” says Jussi Hinkkanen, vice president corporate relations for Nokia Middle East and Africa. ‚”The AppCampus collaboration showcases our commitment to strengthening the growing mLab network around the world and infoDev’s vision of supporting emerging market entrepreneurs in conquering local, regional and global markets‚”.

The official launch of the program took place during the mobile stream at the Global Forum on Innovation & Technology Entrepreneurship in East London, South Africa, organized by infoDev and the South African Department of Science & Technology. A key theme of the Forum is how innovation can lead to high-growth entrepreneurship which creates sustainable jobs. Valerie D’Costa, infoDev’s Program Manager says, ‚”The AppCampus initiative fits with the philosophy of infoDev of supporting innovative entrepreneurs from developing countries. We want to support those who can excel with some level of mentorship, skills training and seed financing. We provide potential job-creators better access to markets, which is what we are all about.‚”

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