XR in South Africa: Shaping a new reality


While relatively small, the South African extended reality (XR) sector is a community of artists, developers, businesses and makers who are driving innovative and globally-recognised (and, in many cases, leading) projects.

While still a very young sector globally, XR is so much more than a set of digital art forms that create mind-blowing, engaging experiences in whole new worlds. As many of South Africa’s XR creators are showing us, XR holds the potential to impact education, solve business and social problems, and create jobs.

From our research, there is a real sense of opportunity within this sector. And for many, “they feel like there’s a real opportunity to shape the field from the beginning and not inherit something that comes with a bunch of quite problematic legacies”. Although, this does not mean that it is immune to the issues of access and transformation that South Africa as a whole is grappling with.

The recent Africa XR Report (commissioned by Meta) is a vital study of this sector on the continent. It spotlights innovation and brings important obstacles to the fore. In this report, the authors Judith Okonkwo and Dale Deacon define XR as: “Extended Reality (XR) is widely acknowledged as the umbrella term for the immersive technologies – virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR); and other aligned and similar technologies – the face filters on social media, spatial audio, haptic devices – that blur the line between physical reality and digital fantasy.”

Structure of the XR sector in South Africa

By the very nature of the technology that powers XR, it is not a sector that is geographically rooted – digital worlds transcend these boundaries that we have demarcated on the physical world. South African XR professionals are very much in contact with and connected to their global counterparts (empowered by technologies like the metaverse and VRChat). These ties are particularly strong across the continent.

Due to the size and age of the sector, freelancers do make up a significant portion, with smaller startups playing an important role alongside more established companies like Eden in South Africa. Through creative projects and collaborations with artists, Eden has continuously pushed the envelope on what is possible. They have also reimagined how VR hardware can work in other sectors through the high-end Eden Wellness Station – “the world’s easiest Virtual Reality combo to bring the benefits of immersive technology to your children’s ward”.

Cross-sectoral impact

XR is more than creating immersive worlds in the metaverse, VRChat, or experimental film. It has the potential to radically change how we interact with and view reality.

For example, Habitat XR has played a vital role in conservation efforts globally. They recently launched two immersive new experiences at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s permanent location in Rwanda. The goal of these groundbreaking projects is to bring visitors closer – albeit digitally – to Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas than has been possible before, without impacting their natural environment.

Another example is the previously-mentioned Eden Wellness Station, which is a VR solution bundled with informative, immersive content that helps children understand what they can expect during their stay in the hospital. It consists of an animated virtual reality series called the Get Well Pals. Endearing characters tackle tough topics such as ‘What is an MRI’, ‘What is Cancer’, and ‘How to Cope With Needle Pokes’, preparing kids for their medical procedures and treatments while providing coping strategies and support – all in a kid-friendly way.

Organisational bodies and development of the sector

While there is not yet a formal sector organisation, organisations like WeAreVR (started by Dale Deacon of Team Epic), Electric South and Eden (through their Friday Sessions) are important drivers of development in the XR sector. While physical meetups were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, connection has continued virtually.

Electric South focuses on enabling artists to create tech-driven immersive and interactive stories. They do this through production and distribution services, workshops and labs, events and festivals, grants and amplifying other funding and project application opportunities within the sector.

Electric South’s New Dimensions Lab, for example, is an annual workshop that provides the opportunity for African creatives to explore immersive technologies alongside leading industry advisors from across the globe. The lab participants develop stories told through creative technology alongside these advisors. Labs consist of discussions, masterclasses, and participants’ opportunities to workshop their creative projects.

Electric Africa, Africa’s first VR festival, was presented for the first time by Electric South in November 2020. It is a free, online festival borne out of a commitment to building audiences in Africa for virtual reality content. The seven-day festival programme includes a showcase of work by African creators alongside international works of narrative fiction and non-fiction; live talks; webinars; and one-on-one talks with industry leaders and acclaimed artists.

While not based in South Africa, Africa no Filter and Ìmísí 3D are both doing a lot to support the development of XR on the continent. Africa no Filter’s focus is on projects that change the narrative and tell nuanced and contemporary stories from and about Africa. Ìmísí 3D is centred on growing Nigeria’s XR ecosystem but are involved in projects and partnerships across the continent, including the AR/VR Africa Community.

Events and festivals

The Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival is a collaboration between the Tshimologong Precinct and the University of the Witwatersrand (WIts) School of Arts, Digital Arts Department. In its ninth year in 2022, “the festival takes as it starting point the idea that for innovation with technology to succeed, a strong connection needs to be made between African cultural practices and creative encounters.” The word ‘fak’ugesi’ means “switch on” or “add power” in urban isiZulu.

While not a strictly XR festival, VR/AR does feature strongly in the Fak’ugesi Festival’s programming, which often includes 360° and VR film screenings, conferences, talks and workshops.

Similarly, the South African documentary film festival Encounters has previously collaborated with Electric South and screened 360° and VR films. Durban FilmMart, a four-day film finance and co-production market, has provided similar opportunities.

Due to the global nature of the XR community, South African developers and creators aren’t limited to events and festivals in this country. For example, three South African productions or co-productions formed part of the official selection at Venice VR Expanded in 2021. These included Spirit of Place (directed by Dale Deacon) and Container (directed by Meghna Singh and Simon Wood). At Venice Immersive this year, Rick Treweek’s Uncanny Alley appeared as part of the official selection. It will also be showcased at Raindance Immersive later this year and has been nominated for Raindance’s Best Immersive World award.

Education opportunities

XR skills in South Africa are largely acquired via online courses and the “University of YouTube”. Most developers and creators do, however, have a university degree (often in IT or game development, which uses similar software).

There are a few formal learning opportunities, including the skills development workshops offered by the Makerspace at Tshimologong Precinct, Electric South and Ìmísí 3D. The SAE Institute South Africa offers a one-year higher certificate in virtual reality, and the VR Innovation Academy at the University of the Western Cape provides a 10-month-long post-graduate course in AR and VR.

The Metaverse Crew, ​​a diverse and supportive community of artists, engineers, game makers, programmers, creatives, performers, and musicians living in the metaverse, provides networking opportunities, workshops and learning opportunities on a much more informal basis.

Funding and support

Although XR is part of the national government’s plan to bring South Africa into the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), there are no specific funds or grants to help facilitate this.

For 360° or virtual reality films, producers can apply to the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), who do consider these types of projects in their funding.

Private foundations and companies are playing a role in funding South African XR projects. This includes Meta, who funded The Africa XR Report, the Ford Foundation, and the Bertha Foundation.

European Cultural Institutions like the Goethe Institute, the French Institute of South Africa, and the British Council have all run or supported multiple programmes that contribute to the XR ecosystem and its creators.


XR is hugely impacted by many of South Africa’s socioeconomic issues. Internet access is still very much a privilege; data is costly and speed is an issue in many regions. The hope is that the roll out of 5G will begin to give more people access to high speed internet – hopefully at a lower cost.

Similarly, access to hardware is a challenge both for developers and creators, as well as consumers. The general high cost of these devices is compounded by exchange rates, import duties, shipping costs (if South Africa is listed as a shipping destination) and the time it takes to arrive.

The Mixed Reality Workshop (TMRW) Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, used to play a significant role in introducing the general public to XR and giving them a comfortable space to explore and even try their hand at creating. TMRW Gallery is an unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the (much-needed) subsequent lockdowns, but a space like this is vital if we want to create broader access to XR.

In addition to a lack of funding in the sector, there is a reluctance among many funders to engage in experimental projects or technology that has no guaranteed return on investment. Advancements in technology come when we experiment, and have the freedom for these experiments to potentially be failures. The sector is unfortunately still too young to apply the same funding models as a much more developed sector like film (whose products can be viewed in cinemas, on cellphones, laptops and TV screens).

Meta recently indicated that the metaverse has the potential to add $40 billion to the African economy. XR in general provides exceptional opportunities for job creation and growth and can have profound impacts on a variety of sectors.

What does the future look like?

As one of our interviewees indicated, XR plays an important role in bringing human connectedness back to technology. Currently, in the metaverse, we can attend events and parties on a global scale.

As Eden has shown, healthcare can be fundamentally changed. And education will likely be soon to follow. The University of Pretoria has a virtual reality centre aimed solely at the mining sector. Our creators have already shown the magic that can happen when they work with visual artists like Mary Sibande, and Olivié Keck or collectives such as at The Centre For The Less Good Idea. XR can help the rest of the world to truly understand the extraordinary landscapes and rich cultures that South Africa has to offer through 360° tours and virtual museums.

There’s exceptional talent and passion in South Africa’s XR sector, it just needs a lot more funding and backing to realise its true potential.

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