JOHANNESBURG - The movie The Lost Botanist, co-directed by the Kokstad-raised sister and brother team of Ree and Rick Treweek, this year became the first Virtual Reality (VR) experience from Africa to screen in competition at Annecy in France.
The five-minute interactive immersive adventure transports viewers to a magical kingdom that has forgotten about nature.
It is best viewed on a 3D printed Oculus Go headset.
The headset, a hand-held device that is shaped like an owl, is made by Johannesburg-based Eden Labs. It was a hot show at the recent National Arts Festival in Makhanda.
“We noticed that at conferences and shows, it’s often quite dark and gloomy and people don’t want to put on headsets,” Treweek says. “So we wanted The Lost Botanist headset to look like a part of the project; the outside is as important as the headset. It really makes everything feel a lot more playful.”
Treweek says the headset case was designed in virtual reality, using Oculus Medium, a 3D sculpting package for VR.
The lab also added a custom handle to the case, enabling people to quickly experience the immersion without having to strap in as with other VR headsets.
“By far the biggest challenge of working on The Lost Botanist was the pipeline,” he says. “Working with people who don’t know VR, we had to rethink the traditional way they build animation and change that for real-time and 360. But that was also the exciting part.”
His sister Ree says they had to learn the limitations of working in VR.
“I had to wrap my head around the technical challenges Rick has. I’m used to being able to sit with someone and move an element far into the background and be involved in that structure,” she says. “Rick and his team did an amazing job at building this world, but every so often I wanted to pick something up and move it around and I couldn’t.”
Johannesburg-born Gareth Steele is the co-founder and art director of Eden Labs, where he focuses on mixed media applications for emerging technologies, including 360 photo and video, augmented reality and virtual reality.
He is also co-founder of Night Owls, a monthly skill-sharing platform, where he met his Eden Labs co-founder Rick.
“The Lost Botanist is a place where all the forgotten things go. It is an extremely rich fantasy world in which all the mythologies of our human experience exist. The art style is so rich and the potential for storytelling is so huge, so even beyond VR, there are massive opportunities,” he says.
“We’ve been selected to go to Annecy with eight other films globally. We were up against a Neil Gaiman adaptation and an experience narrated by Colin Farrell – it’s mind-blowing that a small indie here in Africa can play with the big guys. We have to take a step back and look at what we’ve accomplished in the amount of time too – it’s huge for us. I’m proud of the whole thing,” he adds.
Liam Klopper, a developer at Eden Labs, says he always liked games, not for the competitive aspects, but for the way certain moments in games make people feel.
“You’ll be playing and a character will come up and say something that resonates. After using VR for the first few times, I was struck by the capacity for VR to amplify those feelings due to how immersive it is. You’re no longer playing as a character; you’re playing as yourself. You have the first-person perspective, so the way the environment and game makes you feel is so much more poignant.
“You feel directly everything that happens to the world; the connectedness you feel to the world itself is much stronger,” he says.
Daniel Rousseau, another developer at Eden Labs, says he is as excited about the newness of the industry, which has allowed more freedom than established industries.
“The industry is so new. New things are popping up everywhere and I think people like new. It’s fun to be in on that, while it’s still shiny and flashy,” Rousseau says.
Eden Labs says VR has grown phenomenally over the last two years.
The lab is beginning to see version two devices and wireless devices.
With the new Oculus Quest coming out, he adds, there is a lot of excitement about what it’s going to do “for us and the storytelling possibilities.
Moving on into the Oculus Quest and stand-alone mobile devices that have no wires, it’s really making it a lot more accessible to the general public, rather than just hard-core gamers and developers. It’s going to explode in the coming years.”
Klopper agrees and says one should watch out for VR because in the next few months it’s going to take a huge leap.
He says big companies backing this kind of tech shows there is definitely room for growth.
He says Facebook owns Oculus, a virtual reality company that is releasing the Quest, a headset that is completely disconnected from the PC.
And Valve, he adds, who own Steam, the biggest gaming sales platform, are releasing the Index, a controller that’s geared more towards developers and has knuckles.
“So the tech is getting better and more compact and more affordable,” he says. “As more people access the tech, we’ll find uses for it in our daily life that we didn’t even think we needed, but that we’ll struggle to live without.”
Steele says VR is an exciting medium because it is fluid and there is much potential for multimedia applications, from training to film to gaming.
“There are just so many applications. You can mention anything and find a use case for VR very quickly. I’m very interested in how you can use it to show things you wouldn’t be able to show normally, and how it will impact documentaries, where it gives you the ability to see everywhere and everyone at once, with no bias and perspective,” he says.
Rousseau said VR has many diverse applications.
“It’s not just one industry - it has applications in architecture and in exhibitions for art, and many other experiences. It’s a completely new environment, with different opportunities.”