- Combating misinfo, spreading awareness, fostering harmony with immersive tech
Mahder M. Getaneh, a passionate architecture lecturer at Addis Ababa Science and Technology (AASTU), not only teaches her students but also delves into the realms of design, innovation, and problem-solving for societal issues.
In October 2022, she participated in a media literacy training organized by the US embassy in Addis. The training focused on combatting misinformation and disinformation, aiming to equip attendees with the necessary tools to tackle this pervasive problem.
With approximately 60 participants, the three-day training concluded with a challenge: each group had to devise an idea addressing Ethiopia’s major challenges.
After careful consideration, Mahder’s group saw ethnic tension as the country’s major hurdle, attributing it to the propagation of misinformation and disinformation.
“Our group identified ethnic tension as the primary issue in Ethiopia, stemming from misinformation and disinformation,” Mahder explains. She further notes that they observed “the rise in ethnic tension is primarily due to limited exposure to other ethnic groups’ values and cultures, as many ethnic groups primarily interact within their own culture.”
Inspired, Mahder and her group conceived a groundbreaking solution: a virtual reality game that would allow individuals to immerse themselves in the culture, identity, values, and lifestyles of different ethnic groups, all without the need to physically visit their respective regions. This innovative virtual reality (VR) game aimed to provide an authentic experience, granting users a deeper understanding of the rich tapestry of ethnic identities prevalent throughout Ethiopia.
The team’s idea garnered immediate recognition, securing a USD 4,000 competition grant from the US embassy.
With the funds at their disposal, Mahder and her colleagues embarked on an ambitious project dubbed ‘Co(X)ist.’ Their primary focus was to design the VR model for three prominent ethnic groups in Ethiopia: Amhara, Oromia, and Tigray.
Mezmure Yared, a fifth-year architecture student at the University and a student of Mahder, shares his passion for software-based design and simulation modeling. He played a pivotal role in the Co(X)ist game by designing and modeling its assets.
“For the initial phase, we selected Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray,” Mezmure explains. “We began by modeling their housing designs, as well as the clothing, food, and interior materials used in their homes. We modeled the major characteristics of these ethnic groups based on the research done by the Co(X)ist founding members.”
He says they took the speech accents, clothing patterns, housing designs, food, lifestyle, and everything that defines the cultures selected from the research.
“We utilized Blender for the initial modeling process and collaborated with professional game developers, to create VR models using Unity software,” he said. “By integrating Blender with Unity VR gaming software, the audience can interact in real-time. We handled the texture and modeling aspects sand the software enables simulations.”
He also refutes claims suggesting the involvement of Google Developers Group (GDG) in the design modeling process.
In December of last year, the Co(X)ist team successfully launched the VR game, marking the culmination of almost a year-long project.
Audiences interested in experiencing the game require an Oculus device. Once the game is initiated, users can select which ethnic group they wish to explore. Through the Oculus, audiences can fully immerse themselves in the identities, cultures, and values of different ethnic groups. The VR experience offers a visual and auditory representation of the selected ethnic group’s traditions and customs.
The VR game was showcased at the American Corner (The Col. John C. Robinson American Center) and the science museum exhibition, where it received a positive response from various institutions such as the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), the Ministry of Labor and Skill, and the National ID. These officials expressed their enthusiasm and pledged support after experiencing the VR game.
“Everyone who experienced the game was thrilled. It enabled people to better understand the values and culture of other ethnic groups. Therefore, the project has successfully achieved its objective,” says Dagimawi Leulekal, one of the event organizers during the game’s launch.
Following the triumph of the project, Co(X)ist has transitioned from being a mere endeavor to a startup company.
The co-founders of the Co(X)ist startup company include Mahder Mulusew, Beza Tezera, Nahom Eshetu, Bethlehem Abate, and Yared Ayele. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, the group comprises project managers, architects, software engineers, and technology enthusiasts with a shared passion for design and innovation.
Co(X)ist has also won the US Embassy Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) competition, securing nearly USD 20,000 in funding.
Despite their successes, the Co(X)ist co-founders acknowledge that the project still faces several challenges in reaching its ultimate target.
Initially, the VR game was intended to be accessible to higher education students. However, due to a shortage of Oculus devices, it has been challenging to bring the VR game to campuses.
While the US embassy provides two Oculus devices for events, the Co(X)ist team requires their own devices to expand their outreach. However, the cost of Oculus devices poses a significant hurdle.
“The US embassy provides us with the two oculus but we cannot take their oculus wherever we want. We have to have our own,” Dagmawi said. “But Oculus’s are expensive, it costs between 50,000 and 60,000 birr in Ethiopia (approximately $750 on Amazon).”
The team acknowledges the need for the latest VR technologies to enhance audience interaction. They emphasize that more organizations should support innovative ideas, particularly those focused on peacebuilding and youth engagement. “Securing additional resources is crucial for maximizing the impact and reach of Co(X)ist,” Dagmawi explained.
He underscores the importance of better software to develop a cutting-edge VR experience, but acknowledges that the best software comes at a cost.
The team brought over 40 university students to the American Corner to experience the VR game, but their goal is to reach many more students.
“What we have done so far is just a demonstration. The ethnic mis-information and dis-information in Ethiopia can be addressed if we reach as many people and work on the young generation,” Mahder said.
By exposing more students to the values and cultures of different ethnic groups through the VR game, the Co(X)ist team believes they can address the issue of ethnic misinformation and disinformation in Ethiopia. The rise in ethnic tension, they argue, stems from limited exposure to and understanding of other ethnic groups’ values and cultures.
Studies indicate that increased exposure significantly reduces tension and conflicts, according to Mahder.
“We are planning to organize over 50 stages now. We plan to buy Oculus devices and better software once the funds we won are disbursed. The project we did is ‘Co(X)ist for peace’. Next, we will do ‘Co(X)ist for climate’, and then for gender equality and much more. We have already started the two new projects,” added Mahder.