Meet some of the people leading Cameroon’s foray into Virtual Reality and AR

In January, Cameroon made history. The feat was spectacularly hosting the biennial Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in its new…

In January, Cameroon made history. The feat was spectacularly hosting the biennial Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in its new 24-team format and staging a colourful opening ceremony in the capital Yaounde.

The AFCON 2021 (actually held in 2022) opening ceremony could have been like any other but for one thing: beyond the multicultural display and great fanfare, a fierce-looking lion jumped down the rooftop of the 60,000-seater Olembe Stadium, prowled in the pitch before roaring at fans, to the amazement and fear of the spectators.

The “Indomitable Lion” – the moniker by which Cameroon’s national team is well known – was not from the country’s lush tropical rainforest. It was actually a stunning augmented reality show of a 3D lion created using tensor holography – making Cameroon the first African country to employ such immersive technology in sports.

Like other African countries, Cameroon is getting a foot in the door of Extended Reality (XR), notably Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), from using these immersive  technologies in excursions, film-making, e-commerce, real estate and education to taking part in intra African hackathons that train and mentor the next generation of XR experts.

Angele Messa, Project Manager of EduClick Africa and passionate EdTech entrepreneur using VR. Image supplied by EduClick Africa

According to Armand Claude Abanda, Resident Representative of African Institute of Computer Science, AICS-Cameroon, Cameroon is among the first African countries to take interest in VR by virtue of much experimentation in the sector. The country was the only African country to take part in Virtual Reality International Conference in Laval, France in 2009 and, through a competition, bagged the ‘Rising Star Prize’ for modelling a Bamileke chiefdom in VR. The following year, it beat countries like China and Japan to pick up the ‘Special Prize for Innovation’ for its VR project of an indigenous pygmy settlement.

Across the country, a young generation of tech enthusiasts are keeping alive the prospects of these immersive technologies, and changing the way people perceive, think and act. One of them is 32-year old EdTech entrepreneur Angele Messa, project manager of EduClick Africa, which she co-founded in 2016.

Progressive innovation and adoption

EduClick is a hybrid platform which supplements in-person presence with online-based learning and incorporates virtual reality for kids who can’t access formal education. Messa herself used to be one of such kids in her teens as she suffered from an illness which regularly kept her away from school.

In November 2019, she introduced virtually reality excursions, taking kids to places in the country where they would otherwise not be able to visit for lack of finance or for security concerns. Thanks to the VR solution, over 100 kids have been able to visit the biodiverse Mount Cameroon National Park in the restive South West region where a drawn-out armed separatist conflict has been raging since 2017. The VR excursions have enable them come close to nature, seeing monkeys and chimpanzees and coming face-to-face with the last tribe of African forest elephants.

When the kids were virtually taken to the Atlantic coast of Limbe at Down Beach where a death shark had been washed ashore, they were very excited and eager to take action, according to Messa. “They asked ‘what can we do?’ and we told them the actions to take to fight climate change, protect nature and the environment,” she said.

Messa is one of those who believe Cameroonians have the potentials to tap into the promising field of immersive technologies. “We have to adapt these technologies to our context and solve our most pressing problems,” she said.  Messa says as the technology evolves in the country, it will be important to drive it towards the knowledge market.

“We need to exploit these technologies for our development needs,” Messa told JournalduCameroun. EduClick plans to immerse more kids into the technologies of virtual reality and gaming, as well as 3D.

Another young Cameroonian taking the bull by the horns with regards to virtual reality is Fongoh Martin; a visionary full-stack developer with a knack for nitty-gritty. Fongoh is founder and CEO of Digital Renter, an online real estate platform designed to reduce stress related to search of homes for rent, homes for sale, and plots of land for sale.

Last year, Digital Renter incorporated virtual reality into its existing solution to respond to the time constraint involved in displacing a growing class of working people. “They are very busy people who don’t even have time to leave their offices and go see a house in the quarter [neighbourhood]. And pictures don’t really say exactly how the feeling of a house is,” Martin said, a factor which motivated him to embrace VR.

Tech researchers at work. Image supplied by Digital Renter

Using VR, Martin is able to give clients a virtual tour by immersing them fully into the house without displacing them. Digital Renter agents take VR headsets to the clients wherever they are or clients who have their own headsets can download the app and immerse themselves. “Wearing the headset, you will feel like you are actually there in the house and being able to navigate yourselves around various spaces in the house.” Clients also have the opportunity to have a 360˚ view on the Digital Renter website.

Now, Martin says he is taking the idea to hotels and travel bookings. Guests who get to a hotel would not have to be physically walked through all various rooms for them to make their choice. They will simply be given a VR headset which will immerse them across the entire hotel, according to Martin, cutting down on time for both the receptionist and the guest.

Martin plans to also extend this to ecotourism and digitalizing the country’s museums. However, having the requisite resources remains a main challenge though Martin is upbeat.

“It [XR] has a very big prospect because people are tired of just having the regular things especially in the education and health milieus. I see a lot of potentials there especially when it comes to teaching students.  There should be an intentional effort by the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation to push forward research in extended reality,” he told JournalduCameroun.

Imagining Africa by 2070

No one knows how the continent will look like in the decades to come but Cameroonian filmmaker Pierre-Christophe Gam already has a glimpse through his TOGUNA project of how Africa will look like by 2070 from the perspective of an African family living in Lagos, Nigeria.

The TOGUNA is a metaverse dream world which fuses AR/VR, photography, mixed-media collage, sculpture, film, music, bespoke furniture, ceramic tapestry, food and storytelling into a seamless experience to drive people imagination towards the future. The hybrid arts installation is being developed in Cameroon and Benin, as well as online.

Inspired by the Dogon people of Mali who used the Toguna as a meeting point to discuss and exchange ideas, Gam sees his practice as a continuation of the great tradition of Griot, the storytellers and guardians of the memory of the community in ancient West African societies.

Gam says the outbreak of Covid-19 pushed him to incorporate AR/VR into his project as he work very much centered on physical installations. He had organised physical immersive workshops in Ghana and Kenya focussing on the historical journey of the African diasporas and the question of Africa’s future. Gam had planned to present a series of installations at the Dakar Biennale 2020, but then the Covid-19 pandemic turned everything upside down.

“During Covid-19, it was no longer possible to meet physically or to travel and people were stuck in their homes. It made me realised there was an issue with just making physical experience because for those who were not able to attend the event, it was as if it didn’t exist,” Gam told JournalduCameroun. As more and more people turned online to communicate with each other, Gam took advantage to meet them online and create a space where they could meet and connect in meaningful ways.

“So, I thought I should tap into the use of VR and AR in order to facilitate this experience. At the same time, it allows for the experience to be accessible to more people than in the physical space,” he said.

TOGUNA metaverse. Preview extracted with permission

Since then, Gam says extended reality has elevated his TOGUNA by making it a fully immersive installation, adding depths and layers to his work. “The VR/AR allows me to bring people into a more immersive journey. I take VR, as AR as well, as a possibility for us to engage with what is already actually invisible in our physical experience. We have these conversations about spirituality, spiritualism, magical realism, the spirits and parallel dimensions, the sorts of things that one can feel but cannot see,” Gam said, adding that he uses such with arts to engage with the idea of the invisible. “VR is a way for us to make sense of what is there but cannot be seen.”

Promising tech sector

Across Cameroon, the rise of AR/VR holds promise for the country’s burgeoning economy. The immersive technology is rapidly being incorporated in different sectors, notably education and training.

From north to south, east to west, people are taking on extended reality one project at the time. Global Map Lumia, the partner to Cameroon Flying Labs, designed and built an AR application to offer kids in Cameroon with hands-on introduction to drone piloting, robotics and STEM.

Also, for the first time, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) in May 2022 employed the incredible potential of virtual reality in cotton training. ICAC is experimenting with the immersive technology in Cameroon as well as Zambia. Thanks to VR, cotton farmers in Cameroon can experience best practices from all over the world all-year round in a bid to boost yields.

In addition, a generation of young Cameroonians is leveraging technology to take part in augmented/virtual reality hackathons, acquire skills and develop innovative solutions. A team of Cameroonian techies, E-Worriors, which participated in one of the hackathon developed an award-winning Ed-tech solution for practicals through gaming in a local virtual Chemistry laboratory.

“We had some great projects in the previous editions,” Christian Yves Fongang, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of SDK Games Africa, told JournalduCameroun.  The Douala (Cameroon)-based organizing partner of AR/VR Africa Hackathon – a continent-wide initiative by Imisi 3D to build a community of XR technology creators – added that “we hope that the upcoming edition will open doors for many more AR/VR projects and funding.”

Young techies take part in 2020 AR/VR Africa Hackathon, a hybrid (VR/on-site) come-together at a site in Douala. Image supplied by SDK Games Africa

According to Fongang, there are a lot of opportunities in immersive technologies but Cameroon is still far from seeing the rise of AR/VR at a good pace because of the expensive cost of equipment. But the innovator says like-minded techpreneurs like him should take the challenge to make people understand they can invest in those types of equipment.

“We need to work very hard to produce local and useful content for our country and continent to attract investments. The burden is on us to make it work,” he said.

Beyond Cameroon, Judith Okonkwo, Founder of Imisi 3D, a VR creation lab, sees the possibilities of extended reality in Africa to be endless. “There was some research published recently indicating that the metaverse presents a 40 billion dollar opportunity for Africa, and I consider XR the gateway technologies for the metaverse,” Okonkwo said.

She believes when fully realised, the 40 billion dollars will turn out to be a conservative estimate. “The reason for my optimism is rooted in the various sectors where this technology can be transformational for the continent, and at the top of that list is education.”

Okonkwo told JournalduCameroun if significant barriers to realising this potential, notably  infrastructural challenges, access to hardware, XR talent, funding, amongst others, are surmounted, the results will be unbelievable.

According to the XR evangelist, there are many sectors – healthcare, retail, manufacturing, training, and the arts, to name a few – that will benefit tremendously from these technologies.