19 January 2001

Top Story

Virtual reality is one those applications that has always seemed to promise slightly more than it can deliver. It is so often used by commentators to illustrate the bright and shiny future of technology that its rather more mundane uses have gone unrecognised. Dave Lockwood, founder of the Naledi 3D Factory in Gauteng argues for its place in Africa as a way of communicating ideas and processes without the need for high levels of literacy.

A new company in South Africa, the Naledi3D Factory is focusing on the development of such interactive visual content. Traditionally known as virtual reality (VR), such visual and interactive content has a powerful role to play as part of the use of ICT to promote economic growth in Africa.

Even at the PC level, there are many ways that VR, or interactive visual simulation as it is sometimes called, can be applied.One can visualise an industrial process, a scientific or engineering principle, test ideas before an investment is made in physical construction as well as re-create long gone historic and cultural worlds. Most importantly, one can "demonstrate" how things work, by taking advantage of the inherent interactivity of the medium. Not only to "look" and "see" but also to "do" in a safe and non-threatening environment.

In the African context, it is the latter that VR offers one of the biggest opportunities. VR can be used to facilitate the transfer of context-specific knowledge between people.This translates into a medium that transcends traditional verbal and written forms of communication. For the first time, we have a communication tool that is, context-rich AND concept rich ­ and visual in experience. Given that 60% of the human brain is devoted to the processing of visual information, and that Africa is characterised by lower literary skills and has a tremendous need for new educational resources, VR can be tailored and made not only relevant, but also fundamental to Africa¹s needs.

Individuals can develop skills by learning through "look-see-do", where the need for good literacy skills is not a pre-requisite. Thus for example, retrenched workers can learn new, wealth-generating skills or farmers can see, learn and practice good agricultural principles.

The reality is that many marginalized people and communities have the potential for wealth creation within their existing communities, despite the current poverty, illiteracy and lack of development opportunities. They need only to be empowered with the skills to generate and create this wealth.

One recent project developed by the Naledi3D Factory in this area (in conjunction with UNESCO), is being tested in a multi-purpose community telecentre and teaches basic rural good hygiene practice. At Nakaseke (Uganda), 60% of the community are functionally illiterate and therefore traditionally barred from facilities such as computers. This (local content) VR model addresses basic issues that lead to water-borne disease such as typhoid, dysentery, and cholera as well as water based diseases such malaria and bilharzia. Emphasis is on visual and audio cues to transfer the message, not the written word.

It is sometimes argued that the right computers are not available locally. However, such computers are being sourced for local schools and multi-purpose community centres, which provide good avenues with which to roll out local content. With a good graphics card (for example the RIVA TNT2 or GeForce2) this type of content can run on even a PII environment.

The Naledi 3D Factory will focus on four main areas of activity:

(1) Training and education (secondary, tertiary as well as ABET)

(2) Interactive content to support E-commerce marketing opportunities

(3) One-off modelling and simulations, for example in the industrial, transport, health and architectural fields

(4) Interactive large-scale edutainment and entertainment

The company’s founder Dave Lockwood has over 4 years experience in the VR field. During that time, he recognised that while VR does offer great potential when used in electronic marketing, visualisation of industrial processes, education and training etc, it is in the developing world context that VR offers the most unexplored opportunities.

For more information contact Dave Lockwood at the Naledi 3D Factory or +27 12 349 0385 or