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Saudi’s Ithra Center Dazzles London with XR Showcase

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Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, or Ithra Center, offered a stellar night of creative works from talented young professionals in extended reality (XR) in central London on Tuesday.

The Center’s Creative Solutions initiative selected a cohort of five impressive immersive works, which debuted on Oculus Quest 2 headsets and featured technologies from Unity, OpenBrush, and others.

The meeting kicked off with speeches from Filipe Martin, Programme Lead for Creative Solutions and Mizna Al-Zamil, Ithra’s Head of Creativity and Innovation, who discussed the background and purpose behind the Center’s work to build cross-cultural initiatives with the Kingdom.

Maddalena Crosti, Programme Advisor and Board Member for Ithra’s Creative Solutions Initiative, hosted panel talks with teams developing the selected works, who explored several key themes in culture, art, history, science and others using the creative immersive tools and technologies.

Ithra panel discussion featuring five selected artists for the Creative Solutions initiative. From Left to Right:
Nouf AlSughier, Layla A, Abdullah Ba Mashmos, Abdullah Al-Arfaj, Naima Karim, and Maddalena Crosti

Ithra, meaning “enrichment,” was founded by Saudi Aramco in 2018 as the Kingdom’s top centre for cultural and creative talent as well as cross-cultural initiatives.

Ithra Proceeds ‘Full STEAM Ahead’

Dr Ashraf Al-Fagih, Head of Programmes for the Ithra King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, told XR Today how the initiative aimed to combine art, Saudi traditions, and the sciences and was “very interested in STEM and STEAM” projects.

The Saudi Aramco executive explained the five projects were the “creme de la creme” of hundreds of applicants, with the five finalists travelling to the UK to gain mentorship from Britain’s XR experts.

He continued, stating,

“What’s happening here is that we’re doing this for the very first time in Saudi Arabia, where this talent is being empowered in a year-long journey, not only to voice their creativity to come up with a [tangible] product, but also to empower them through entrepreneurship”

The showcase allowed the cohort to learn about the global XR community, gain confidence, and further improve on their works, he added.

Ashraf Al-fagih, Head of Programmes for Ithra. PHOTO: David Benett/ Getty Images

Speaking on the context of Saudi Arabia’s development of the NEOM megacity project, Dr al-Fagih added that his institution, as a Social Corporate Responsibility project of Aramco, had always been “in the right place at the right time to boost the most impactful and trending aspects of creativity.”

Working with XR was an indicator that the Saudi government initiative was “riding the right wave” as it understood the significance and importance of the emerging technology, al-Fagih explained.

He added,

“Everybody’s talking about the Metaverse [and] the virtual world. We are cultivating the best of our talent in order to discover this opportunity”

Concluding, he noted Ithra’s second cohort cycle had demoed in February and promised a fresh wave of impressive projects, talent, and samples.

Tough Decisions for Tech Talent

Maddalena Crosti described to XR Today the process of judging roughly 27 teams submitting their works.

Crosti, who has extensive experience as a programme lead for Digital Catapult, the UK’s leading nonprofit for advanced technologies, said judges were required to listen to pitches and provide feedback, resulting in an hours-long deliberation process to determine which projects would receive funding.

Many of the experts on the panel selected the five winning projects, which was “very difficult” as many of the submissions were excellent.

She explained the cohort development processes further, adding,

“I think it’s a testament to the fact these masterclasses and programmes really work in terms of teaching people how to use XR”

She stated her role in the Creative Solutions initiative was to assist in assembling teams, locate funding, and provide mentors for personal and professional development, among other tasks. Companies such as Cardiff-based Sugar Creatives stepped in to offer their expertise and guidance in the project.

Her work with Veteran Technologist Simon Benson, who served as the tech lead on the entire process, as well as Jennifer Rosen, Founder and Communication Specialist of Fulltilt, was instrumental, she added.

She concluded, stating,

“[Benson] helped them put together their project plans to make sure they chose the right technologies. We also had Jen Rosen, the creative and product lead, who helped with the creative aspects but also made sure [all the teams] stayed on track”

Simon Benson, Technology Consultant at TalentForTech, told XR Today the Creative Solutions programme had been “fantastic” to be involved in and focused on “taking people who have got an aspiration to know and understand more about the world of immersive technology,” and what it could achieve.

Jennifer Rosen Simon Benson Maddalena Crosti

Creative Solutions’ UK Mentors, from right to left: Jennifer Rosen, Simon Benson, and Maddalena Crosti. PHOTO: David Benett/ Getty Images

The veteran tech consultant with decades of XR experience, including filing over 50 tech patents and founding Sony’s PlayStation VR project, explained how the project aimed to prepare “an amazing package” of masterclasses to educate entrants on the world of immersive technologies.

The programme also facilitated prototyping ideas from participants to launch businesses or apply their creative works to the industry, he added.

Speaking further, Benson, who also heads the Unity Centre of Excellence in Salford, said,

“The expertise that goes into it is phenomenal. You know, we literally bring in all the key people, who are really leaders in their field, to make sure everyone gets the best of the best in terms of opportunity and understanding”

He concluded that, in addition to bringing on board 3D filmmakers and technical experts, he was also proud to contribute 30 years of experience working in XR to the programme with the aim of producing tangible results for people joining the project in a “small phase of time.”

Concluding, Benson said,

“When you think about several months of education, programmes, and project activity, which ultimately transforms someone who may have practically no understanding [of XR] to someone who could literally run a technology business delivering XR experiences on a world-class level, it’s phenomenal”

The Creative Solutions initiative took place at London’s iconic County Hall near Westminster Palace on Tuesday and united some of the world’s top XR firms, leaders, and personalities to guide, mentor, and showcase five selected creative projects from Saudi Arabia’s immersive talent.

Winners of the competition were selected for a prestigious XR boot camp and funding opportunities to cultivate the Middle East-North African (MENA) region’s next generation of immersive talent.

For more information and updates, kindly visit Ithra’s Creative Solutions website.

 

 

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