If emergent technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are driven by story, then what African stories will shape Extended Reality (XR) narratives and developments – and how will these experiences find platforms and representation?
These are two of the questions being championed by Electric South, a non-profit organisation in South Africa “involved in funding, incubating and exhibiting” the work of African XR creators “with a focus on immersive storytelling, including VR and AR”.
If the eight presentations at Electric South’s 2023 African XR Realities Lab were anything to go by, then understanding mental health issues, restoring neglected heritage, engaging with communities and creating safe spaces emerged as driving themes behind the Afrofuturist prototypes presented to a small invited audience on 2 July in Cape Town.
The artists’ pitches were the product of six days of lab work and four days of intense application – involving digital skills that included photogrammetry, volumetric capture, LiDAR and software such as the cross-platform game engine Unity.
A demo of their prototypes could be experienced in VR afterwards at workstations around the room. Some of the young creators said they were exhausted from their through-the-night deadlines. For an audience member, though, the work was startlingly fresh, opening up a room full of new questions and possibilities.
Eight fiction and non-fiction XR prototypes were presented, involving fashion, gaming, history, puppeteering, urban planning, film and visual art. It was all about building worlds in a collaborative and caring space.
While a lot more research and development will be needed, these eight projects each opened a window to a new world of story that is heightened by the immediacy and immersive nature of the medium. They promise a world where viewers are no longer viewers but participants in the action, invested and geared for adventure and healing.
Noel Apitta (Uganda)
Concerned with the architecture of time and space, Noel Apitta (aka Scarletmotiff) is an audio-visual artist and “analogue-digital translator” from Kampala who has developed a following for his daily artworks of digital images with music. These video artworks, he says, express the mood of what he experienced that day through evoking an emotion, part of a project called Generative Dreams.
Now immerse that in VR and Apitta aims for users to enter into visual and audio artworks that “interrogate the human experience” and serve as time portals that allow one to step into someone else’s shoes and connect across time and space. They are ultimately, he says, powerful and meditative “chill spaces”.
Harry Ben (DRC)
Growing up in Côte d’Ivoire but now working in Kinshasa, Harry Ben is a designer, filmmaker and UX researcher who developed a passion for the history of Kongo and started a VR lab for users to explore this culture.
Ben’s prototype is Kisi, a series of VR stations, each offering a virtual museum experience of stepping into time and witnessing key – and often neglected – events from the past. Like the burning of religious leader and anticolonial figure Kimpa Vita for heresy in 1702 or King Afonso I, Nzinga Mbemba, who shaped the religious life of the region in the 1500s. Viewers listen to the story as they embody it as onlookers.
Marinda Botha (South Africa)
A trained actor and voice-over artist, Marinda Botha is a puppeteer and educator with a passion for theatre with a social purpose and who works on live theatrical online experiences.
The Bridge is a prototype for a radical future theatre involving both virtual and physical audiences interacting around live performances with puppet protagonists. Viewers can interact, choosing how the story develops on an emotional level and can embody a puppet avatar. If puppetry is an ancient art form drawn from beliefs that inanimate objects possess life, then XR makes this a lived reality.
Ali Elsammak (Egypt)
Ali Elsammak is a game developer who seeks to push the boundaries of virtual and real-world interaction with the goal of using storied games to mess with conventional narrative modes to “tell stories that only a game can tell”.
20 Seconds is a prototype for a new kind of VR game that invites reflection on issues of mental health, escapism and nostalgia. Users become a protagonist entering a circular room with many portals. Each door leads to a scenario that can be entered in any order. There are courtrooms, elevators, and libraries that the player must make sense of and manipulate. But each person who plays has a different experience with its own meaning – and the story only reveals itself fully in the final portal that unlocks when all others are complete.
Kiara Gounder (South Africa)
Fashion is what drives academic and designer Kiara Gounder, who teaches fashion theory and who creates striking bone-like, 3D-printed accessories or fashion artefacts drawn from nature and found objects. These animal exoskeletons become adornments that merge with the human body or stand alone as sculptures.
Fashion performance is the world of Gounder’s prototype – where the user is the mannequin who can use fluid, textile-based virtual materials to adorn themselves. They can manipulate, exaggerate and reshape the materials to project an outsized vision of the aesthetic self that others can view on screens – and that could be replicated for physical display. Tapping into the potential for transformation, her project disrupts fashion by creating it virtually on an epic scale.
Natasha Khanyola (Kenya)
Mechanical engineering graduate turned cinema production designer turned AR/VR developer, Natasha Khanyola explores technologies that can reimagine the way we interact with the world around us.
The Park is a prototype that is an antidote to the pedestrian-unfriendly inner-city designed for cars and commerce with human beings having to carve out a life among the concrete, selling goods, finding transport and shaping vibrant communities. Designed to consider public spaces and how they are used, The Park comprises individual spaces filled with numerous respondents’ interests and leisure activities, forging many jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together to create a world of experience. This is VR that can aid urban planning by allowing users to offer their engagements on what public space should be – and users can visit to take time out.
Lindiwe Mugwara (Zimbabwe)
Film-maker, cinematographer and editor Lindiwe Mugwara tells stories by deploying contemporary technologies to disrupt conventional narratives. But they are a particular kind of story – they deal with everyday issues and have a goal to highlight people’s struggles in a way that will uplift them.
Unveiling of the Mind’s Journey is a VR film that delves a viewer into the inner workings of a protagonist undergoing a mental breakdown, or psychotic episode. It starts off in a prison and ventures into the world as the protagonist questions what is real and what isn’t, learning to embrace both the dark and the light. Viewers – with a particular eye on teenagers experiencing anxiety and depression – can watch the protagonist as witnesses or they can become an embodiment of the protagonist.
Ifeoluwa Osunkoya (Nigeria)
XR and 3D environment artist Ifeoluwa Osunkoya – better known as Skodo – has a background in architecture and is as inspired by the teeming city of Lagos as he is by “the tension between the past and the future”. He creates spaces that can be explored in VR and house culturally rich experiences.
What might it feel like to experience a trance possession by an Orisha deity? That’s one of the questions Egun VR aims to answer. This prototype would be further developed within the spiritual community of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and deploys dance, music and artefacts to provide a theatrical experience. In the service of cultural preservation and living heritage, Osunkoya allows users to enter a sacred space of incantation, join a procession and a spiritual celebration. It also aims to simulate trance states – with as many differing experiences as there are users.