Naspers's new media lab is revolutionary

Technology & Convergence

The boundary between the physical world and internet is narrowing. There is a lab in a quiet corner of Stellenbosch University where a group of post graduate students are doing quite extraordinary things. The vibe in the lab is relaxed and convivial. An aroma of freshly brewed coffee lingers. It’s almost cosy. Yet it’s obvious that this is no ordinary laboratory. The banks of computer screens are one give-away, the carpeted floor – no linoleum here – is another, and the working relationship with media giant Naspers MIH is another.

The focus of the lab is to promote research in “new media” technology in SA. “We are doing research on next-generation technologies that will influence the ways in which humans interact with computers, the web and other forms of electronic media,” says Dr Gert-Jan van Rooyen who founded the lab four years ago.

Research is at the cutting edge of technological innovation and includes human-computer interaction, augmented reality, online gaming, internet television and semantic text processing. Students come from different disciplines – engineering, mathematical sciences, business management and even the humanities.

The entire lab is funded by MIH, Naspers’ biggest subsidiary. MIH holds all of Naspers’s electronic interests, including MultiChoice, Kalahari.Net; MXit; MWeb, Tencent in China and @mail.ru in Russia, and generates 80% of group revenue.

MIH’s funding covers everything from student bursaries and academic salaries to the technology, the building and its running costs. It is what is called “full cost research” and ensures that MIH will own the intellectual property and not the university, as is usually the case. “MIH approached us about four years ago, wanting a partnership,” says Van Rooyen. The involvement of an industry partner means that the research is focused on ideas that have a strong business case. It also means that students interact on a regular basis with executives from MIH.

“We are trying to encourage a strong spirit of entrepreneurialism and innovation in our students,” says Van Rooyen. “A measure of our success would be to see how many highly skilled engineers graduate from here and move into the internet and mobile arena. We and our industry partner see that as a growth area in SA.” In the meantime students are encouraged to launch businesses on the sidelines of their research.

Currently there are 27 projects underway in the lab, with funding to grow to 35. Gaming is a core area of research. “We see this as big growth area. Gaming is growing increasingly interactive and is going more mainstream,” says Van Rooyen. One area of research is into highly scalable massively multiplayer online games – a booming industry globally.

One researcher, John Gillmore is exploring hosting these games on a peer to peer architecture where each computer or “peer” on the network makes a portion of their resources - processing power, disk storage or network bandwidth - available to other network participants, without the need for central coordination by servers. This technique, he says, could reduce the cost of game hosting and maintenance, while improving responsiveness. Currently the client-server model, where servers supply, and clients consume, is the norm. But he has to resolve some problems first: for instance network security and how to store the game state in a distributed fashion.

Another research project is investigating the impact of social networks on word of mouth communication – and measuring how that can drive sales. An online system has been developed to facilitate comments and Kalahari.net is the online partner in the project. Yet another project, run by a specialist in oriental languages, is looking at ways to use games as a medium to teach languages.

One of the criticisms of academic research in SA is that very often it has little relevance to the commercial world. This lab takes a giant step towards changing that.

The MIH Media Lab is “overseen” by MIH Swat, another interesting unit within the group. Swat is short for Strategic Worldwide Applications and Technologies and it builds technology for divisions within the group on a local and international level. “We are the think tank and execution arm of the internet division within the Naspers/MIH Group,” says Jacques van Niekerk, CEO MIH Swat and CTO MIH Internet. “So we are expected to know what is on the cutting edge in technology and we are interested in supporting new media. There is collaboration between us and the university – we learn from them and they learn from us.”

MIH has not imposed specific targets on the students in the Media Lab. “It is best effort research,” says Van Rooyen, “though of course the students all sign bursary contracts.” With this type of research and development underway it is not for nothing that MIH operates one of the largest portfolios of internet/mobile companies in developing markets.