Leso Stories is a Kenyan company that creates dynamic and immersive storytelling experiences based on traditional African stories using new and emerging technologies, such as Virtual Reality and Virtual Humans, to celebrate and share oral traditions of storytelling.
In African cultures, stories were passed down generations by word of mouth. The stories were told in a performative way along with songs, chants or mimicry. These participatory devices helped create a bond between the storyteller and their audience. Legacy media such as books and films make the audience passive observers thus failing to capture the essence of this initial experience.
In a rapidly changing world, emerging technologies such as virtual reality can help us preserve the traditions of oral storytelling in Africa. This new way of immersive storytelling provides us with an opportunity to revive the once intimate relationship between an African storyteller and their audience.
Virtual Humans as Conversational Agents
Virtual humans are human-looking avatars that are digital representations of men or women. They are linked to a range of technologies such as artificial intelligence and intelligent narrative systems that enable verbal and nonverbal behaviour and allow them to interact with real human beings thus enhancing immersion and engagement in a virtually constructed environment.
They can function as storytellers and typically perform one of the three functions as a companion, a guide/instructor or an intelligent conversational partner. By imbuing these expressive virtual humans with an appearance and voice identifiable as African they can gain a sense of authenticity and authority. This allows them to realistically represent a flesh and blood oral storyteller and ultimately enrich the digital recreation of African works of origin.
Sigana: Tales of Lawino
Sigana: Tales of Lawino by Leso Stories was selected as one of the two winners under the immersive realities categories in the fourth edition of Digital Lab Africa in 2020. This project is also a recipient of Mawazo Institute’s grants and investment by the HEVA Fund toward research and documentation.
The word Sigana means story in the Luo language which is spoken predominantly in Western Kenya. In these stories, your role goes beyond that of a mere spectator. Leso Stories created a 6DoF VR experience in which you take on the persona of a 6 or 7-year-old child and engage with a virtual human storyteller alongside other children.
The virtual human Lawino acknowledges your presence and from time to time ask you to perform a few tasks as the story unravels. She not only listens to what you say but she also reacts to it, unlike a static NPC who just gives a quest, Lawino engages with you in a very dynamic and believable manner. This experience was made in the unreal game engine.
The project is intended as a first in a series that contains three stories; The Legend of Lwanda Magere who is a famed Luo warrior, The myth of Simbi Nyaima which is a story about a sunken village that is now a lake in the western part of Kenya and a fable about why the tortoise has a broken shell titled Feast in the Sky.
Sigana: Tales of Lawino is premised on preserving intangible culture using Virtual Reality and Virtual humans. This is an often-overlooked aspect of cultural heritage preservation.
Why Preserve Intangible Culture?
Digitization of cultural heritage is already a mainstream practice for preserving tangible cultures such as historic sites and archaeological findings. Although our African museums boast huge collections of physical artefacts, the lack of context and personal engagement hinders the full enjoyment of such efforts.
The absence of stories involving the context of these collections leaves them as lifeless physical objects, abandoned to their archival tombs. New technologies such as virtual reality, virtual humans and games offer an opportunity to share and celebrate intangible culture by allowing it to be brought to life and to be experienced in a directly interactive and immersive manner.
During the recently concluded Africa Games Week. Melisa Allela a Co-Founder at Leso Stories said, “One of our main motivations is we’ve observed that oral storytelling is sort of a dying art and many young people are quite unfamiliar with how these oral stories were told from a distant past. So in Sigana: Tales of Lawino we know while the experience is light-hearted and fun it aims to celebrate and share this aspect of the cultural heritage of telling stories while including both the tangible and intangible aspects of culture.
We’re really attempting to replicate what happens in a live oral storytelling session and thinking critically about what African oral storytelling has to offer in this digital space. Our work takes the position that these unique features of African oral storytelling need to be expressed in virtual storytelling environments in the fields of HCI and Gaming. Relatedly we are also driven by the desire to give movement and context to cultural artefacts that are often found in museums. Such artefacts would otherwise sit unappreciated collecting dust. With VR and Games, we realize that we can do more than just read about a cultural artefact. We can literally recreate these objects by telling a story that would naturally incorporate such objects.”