Creative Solutions demo day in London highlights young MENA innovators

At an event inside London's County Hall, five VR prototypes by young finalists were presented to international industry experts and investors.
Creative Solutions demo day in London highlights young MENA innovators

When talking about Saudi Arabia these days, most conversations eventually turn to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture -- Ithra. The word means “enrichment” in Arabic and the centre was built as part of Saudi Aramco’s vision to be an ambitious initiative for the public. Ithra is KSA's leading cultural and creative destination for talent development and cross-cultural experiences. Since its opening in 2018, each attraction by Ithra serves as a window to global experiences, celebrating human potential and empowering creativity. At its heart, every component including the Idea Lab, Library, Theater, Cinema, Museum, Children’s Museum, the Great Hall, the Ithra Tower, and the Energy Exhibit strives to support and reinforce the key pillars into exceptional activities and events.

Ithra's building was designed by the Norwegian architectural firm, Snøhetta. It was inspired by the image of a collection of stones symbolizing unity and interconnectedness. The impressive structure in Dhahran, Eastern Province is 80,000 m2 and includes a four-story library, an 18-story Ithra Tower, three-story Idea Lab, an Energy Exhibit, a five gallery museum, a 315-seat cinema, a 900-seat theater, a 1,500 m2 Great Hall, and a Children’s Museum.

Much as in Islam, there are five pillars to the mission of Ithra -- culture, creativity, community, art, and knowledge. The centre envisions a "future in which Saudi Arabia is a beacon for knowledge and creativity." 

That future may be now.

At a wonderful, interactive and fun event in London on Tuesday, March 22, the inaugural Creative Solutions initiative was showcased at County Hall, a majestic building overlooking the London Eye. Creative Solutions is an initiative which highlights immersive digital technologies developed with leading UK tech experts, who serve as mentors to the young talent based in Saudi.

"Ithra is at the centre of the Kingdom’s cultural and creative ecosystem, and Creative Solutions is testament to our commitment to building a sustainable creative industry in Saudi Arabia." -- Miznah Alzamil

The groundbreaking program is designed to boost the region’s creative economy by empowering digital content creation in immersive technologies, developing local talent and opening up global opportunities. Creative Solutions demonstrated how the UK’s established tech industry can be harnessed to support the IT sector development in emerging markets.

The projects are the result of a year-long programme launched under the theme “Digital Immersive Content Creation”. Out of hundreds of applications, a total of 30 ideas by 59 creatives were selected to attend masterclasses with top international innovators. And from those masterclasses, five projects were chosen for the international bootcamp. Each received a grant to support the process of bringing their ideas to life.

The projects are lead by a majority of women, with four out of the five projects featuring women in the creative process. They are what we would call Virtual Reality, and yet span from art projects, to science, gaming and a "gamified" museum tour application.

JD the Kid and Amazing Arabella | photo by David Benett / Getty Images

As the demo day was happening in London, Filipe Martins Gomes, Head of Innovation Programs at Aramco pointed out that another call for applications had been opened for submissions, stressing that Creative Solutions is "a year-round programme."

This year's finalists projects were:
  • Alqatt XR, a gamified immersive experience for digital heritage based on the iconic traditional Al-Qatt art form from southern Saudi Arabia. Created by Layla A. and team, the project started as academic research exploring ways to present craft to the world in new ways using technology. It brings tech and gamification into the heritage space, and builds on the Beat Saber VR rhythm game.
  • Jawaab, an interactive gamified museum tour application using augmented reality and location-based services by Nouf AlSughier and team. The project looks at how entities such as museums, galleries, airports etc. can improve on the user experience through gamification. It enables institutions to share content the user can engage with and add to.
  • Anticipation of Rain, an environmental reflection inspired by the expectation of rain by Naima Karim. The formerly 2D artist has developed a 3D location-based experience exploring people and the environment’s relationship to rain as experienced in Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, incorporating the smell of rain from Switzerland.
  • History of Science, a view of the world through the eyes of the greatest storytellers and scientists in history by Abdullah Al-Arfaj. The creative combines his passion for teaching science and educating children to develop new ways of teaching young learners about the history of science through holograms, virtual reality and multi-speaker immersive sound. It builds on his coding knowledge and understanding of game engine design.
  • Wamdah, an interactive film about a man who embarks on a journey to find his lost brother by Abdullah Bamashmos. A startup of Jeddah-based app developers take users on an experience through time from the Saudi desert in the 1950s to Neom in 2040. The film presents their vision of a futuristic desert location.

Personal favourites, well, were all five projects! And what was great about them was how diverse they were, how the projects spanned from technology to art, through science and creativity. Bangladesh-born Naima Karim's Anticipation of Rain showcased her painting talent and told a very personal story, as Karim lay paralyzed in hospital with Guillain-Barré syndrome and began to dream in colours. But also yearned to experience the rain of her homeland, the Monsoons. When I tried it out with her, she had the scent of before the rain, and during the rain bottled as well, and sprayed a bit for me on perfume tester strips. As I sat there immersed in the beauty of her VR technicoloured vision, I placed the strips under my nose and had a full, multi-sensory experience. I imagine Karim's project would be wonderful for people stuck in place, experiencing impaired mobility. Those who can no longer so easily experience the beauty of a strong rainstorm, she can bring the rain to them.

Wamdah, a glimpse to the future by Abdullah Bamashmos benefited from a large team of creatives, including his wife and co-creator Roua Alzehem. Their company is called Hakawati, which means "storyteller" and that is exactly what they are. In the tradition of the ancient Arab art of storytelling, this Saudi company of young creatives based in Jeddah put together an interactive film about a man on a quest. This project seemed one of the favourites of the cool influencers crowd attending, which included JD the Kid, Amazing Arabella, Gadgets Boy and Shadia Witch N' Famous.

Gadgets Boy with Abdullah Al-Arfaj | photo by David Benett / Getty Images

History of Science by Abdullah Al-Arfaj combined his own passion for science and the stars, which he developed as a child and was only fed by the vicinity of the planetarium in his hometown of Dhahran. Part game but also a whole lot educational, his project has a bit for everyone. Which come to think of it, seems to be what all the five finalists have in common.

Alqatt XR is a great way to experience the art of Al-Qatt, what Saudi women in the desert region of the South use to decorate their homes in bright colours and geometric shapes. To paraphrase the words of UK tech mentor Maddalena Crosti, program lead at Digital Catapult who introduced all the projects during demo day in London, this project by Layla A. is not as easy to "play" as it seems. Making great art by painting by the numbers, be them Southern Saudi numbers, is more challenging than one thinks!

Last but not least is Jawaab, an AR meta journey creator by Nouf Alsughier, Nora Almunaif and Reem Alrashoud. Having met in university, the trio have created the perfect project for a world stuck in pause mode. An interactive way to visit a place from the comfort of your own gaming chair. The women behind Jawaab may seem young in age, but they are forces to be the reckoned with, mark my words.

This year's participants, along with mentors and leadership of Creative Solutions | photo David Benett / Getty Images

Mentors for the programme included Crosti, as well as Simon Benson, a leading technology consultant and former director of immersive technology at Sony, where he was part of the team that founded the PlayStation VR project, along with Anthony Geffen, one of the world’s leading documentary filmmakers and a pioneer in immersive storytelling.

“The UK is a global hub of innovation, and our young creatives have benefitted from collaborating with industry leaders who shared their keen insights and helped to develop these prototypes,” said Miznah Alzamil, Head of Creativity and Innovation at Ithra. “Ithra is at the centre of the Kingdom’s cultural and creative ecosystem, and Creative Solutions is testament to our commitment to building a sustainable creative industry in Saudi Arabia. The 2021 participants demonstrated truly innovative thinking and we are excited to see how they perform in front of our industry experts and investors at the Demo Day.”

Participant Naima Karim said: “Creative Solutions has not only helped us to create our current prototypes, the initiative has also developed pathways for our future creative works. They are helping us build a huge network around the world.”

For more information on Ithra, visit their website.

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