Exploring the arts through VR and immersive technology at Ithra, Saudi Arabia

Female creatives show off captivating new worlds that take viewers beyond the frame

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) bridges the physical and virtual worlds to launch the third edition of its Creative Solutions initiative.
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Artists, authors and gamers gathered at the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, more commonly known as Ithra, which launched its third Creative Solutions initiative this month.

The programme is designed to empower talent and contribute to Saudi Arabia's growing creative economy, which is largely dominated by its youth. Creative Solutions focuses on digital content creation to build an ecosystem that supports and nurtures innovators employing immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, haptics and immersive audio.

On Wednesday, the Cycle 2 cohort showcased 10 prototypes, eight of which projects were led by Saudi women. The participants received a grant from the Host Unity Centre of Excellence and an entrepreneurship track in collaboration with The Bakery. The 10 shortlisted participants were selected by Emmy-winning creative director Kim-Leigh Pontin and Anne McKinnon, co-founder and chief executive of the metaverse platform Ristband.

This truly is a global showcase of Saudi innovation
Miznah AlZamil, head of creativity and innovation, Ithra

The projects were led by innovators from education, healthcare, art, tourism and technology, all of whom put up a diverse and interactive gaming experience.

Powerful projects

The arts were in firm focus at Creative Solutions. Fatima Nammi presented Trace, an interactive game with puzzles, which helps users trace art techniques and travel through murals and paintings with an interactive character called Mira using VR and immersive audio.

“A lot of people appreciate art, but understanding the process of making art, especially through VR, is amazing. In that sense, Trace addresses a challenge we face,” says Miznah AlZamil, head of creativity and innovation at Ithra.

Sensing Beyond the Frame, by Jumanah Saklou, is inspired by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky's theory of synesthesia. Kandinsky was believed to have chromesthesia, or the ability to “hear” paintings, with each form and colour represented by a sound.

Saklou's project, too, aims to immerse users in a state that enables them to experience art beyond just the frame. She hopes to promote the experience in art exhibitions and museums in the near future.

Elsewhere, The Guest: Ethereal Guardian by Mutaz Bashrahil, helps players explore “magical powers” in a multisensory fantasy world to guard characters based on hand recognition sequential sequences. Raghad Albarqi's Whisper Down the Lane, a rotoscoped short film, takes viewers on a linear journey following a string of connected phone calls between five people.

Hinkah by Amal Akinani will be an extensive library of VR training with a focus on soft skills and etiquette in an interactive environment, to help users navigate daily life in Saudi Arabia. “That's why we have it in Arabic and English,” Akinani tells The National. “It was important for me to create a library of works that showcases our culture and etiquette, that represents us.”

With Saudi Arabia opening up to more visitors, Virtually There: A Saudi Tourist Experience by Maram Alghamdi showcases the kingdom's landscape with a view to attracting more tourists. “This one is particularly set in AlUla showcasing the iconic locations and beautiful landscape in our country, and we will develop more destinations including Abha, Souda, Riyadh and Jeddah,” says Alghamdi.

Hejaz Railway: A Witness of Time by Atheer Alharbi, Hanan Makki and Omar Khashoggi, tells the story of the Hejaz region in the 1900s. Using VR and storytelling technologies, it creates a narrative for the famed train journey that passed through several civilisations, from Damascus to Madinah.

Makki says people can hear languages that represent the different people, and their varying cultures, who passed through Arabia. "It's important for Saudis to tell and share this historically important story not just internationally, but also locally,” adds Makki.

Symphony of Life by Aminhali Uhoud creates a mixed-reality experience using scents and temperature change to replicate real life, while MemoARable by Maryam Alfadhli seeks to recreate “beautiful memories” in augmented reality. Alfadhli says it can be used as a gift experience where, through VR, a person's loved can ones relive moments in the same location they happened with photos, messages and voice notes.

“The projects truly are a global showcase of Saudi innovation,” says AlZamil.

From retail and real estate to energy, no sector is immune to the wave of technology that companies are bringing, adds Nick Rosa, author of Understanding the Metaverse. “The metaverse will change the concept of reality, and Saudi Arabia is at the front and centre to change the world as we know it,” he adds.

Rosa says people often confuse gaming with the metaverse, which has a “very deep infrastructure” and is composed of layers that interact with each other to achieve the moonshot vision.

Creative Solutions is a year-round programme open to all Saudi residents over the age of 18. Participants can pitch projects for the 2023 edition until April 13 at www.ithra.com

Updated: February 04, 2023, 8:30 AM