Keen enthusiasts have little doubt that virtual reality (VR) cinema is the next big thing on the African continent. African filmmakers are already at it in the still nascent industry.
Regionally, its advertising appears to have taken an early lead. In 2015, the Marriott Hotel in Kigali was already inviting its guests to view from the comfort of their rooms a VR postcard featuring a business owner setting up a new ice cream shop in the country.
A bit earlier, in 2004, a UNESCO inspired project in Nakaseke, Uganda, was piloting a VR model to address learning points around basic hygiene in the area’s rural communities. Though not much has been heard about the project, there’s no doubt as to its possible impact in community development. It was more an illustration of the VR possibilities that remain to be tapped.
A VR headset shows you an image and, as you move your head to face any direction, it modifies that image to make it seem like you are really “there”. Hand movements can also be incorporated, such as already happening in gaming manipulating actions. And when you include headphones with their surround sound effect your immersion is complete. The outside world is shut out and you are removed from being a spectator into being actor in that virtual environment.
This is described as the full immersive (cave) experience. Below it is the semi-immersive (virtual theatre), followed by the more familiar non-immersive system one finds on a laptop and increasingly on smart phones, and can be either shown on the screen or projected onto a wall using a digital projector.
Non-immersive system includes the 360-degree views that have, of late, become par for the course in video documentaries and news items on social media and other sites.
By utilising the various virtual reality aspects, for instance, VR tourism is already commonplace offer across East Africa incorporating game parks and historic artefacts in museums.
During the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali in May this year, a VR technology prototype specific to the country was being exhibited by the Rwanda Development Board towards the development of a Smart Tourism Portal.
It is, however, in the complexity of the VR format that movie making is only beginning on the continent, while it is only getting deeper entrenched in the West as the technology becomes more adaptive.
In seeking to tell the African story in the evolving digital landscape, regional filmmakers have only just got into it with the aim to reinvent local cinema.
So riveting is the medium, in the verdict of those who’ve already sampled it, that it is “an experience rather than merely watching a film.”
Some Kenyan filmmakers have just become pioneers in the region with a couple of short VR movies that were recently showcased to tantalised audiences in Nairobi.
However, South Africa leads in VR filmmaking on the continent, along few other countries that include Ghana and Senegal.
While VR holds great promise, and other than the mere handful of producers and the training one may require to adeptly accomplish it, a lament one keeps on hearing about is the cost of production.
Producing a two- to three-minute advert, for instance, can set you back around $15,000 in Nairobi, and up to $40,000 in South Africa. This means that the cost of producing an average 90-minute movie is beyond the reach of many producers locally and regionally.
This is not to say it is impossible. But, even then, there is the challenge of distribution of the content, as it would require VR headsets. The cheapest one can buy in Kigali, for instance, goes for around Rwf25,000 ($30) on internet stores.
The other thing about VR is the illusion of the personalised nature of the experience. While one can find content on Facebook or YouTube, it would still require a smartphone with an accelerometer and gyroscope to be used in a VR headset (some made of cardboard and given away free as promotional items) to appreciate the immersive experience.
These, however, are only teething problems. The VR movie is already here. It’s just a matter of time its ubiquity will rival that of smartphone right at the village.