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How Facebook plans to make Indian tech student job-ready with its VR thrust

Kriti Goel (right) and Jivesh Piplani of the Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology have developed a virtual reality Holi in which one can exchange colours with aliens
On a February weekend, senior executives from Facebook, including those from its headquarters in Menlo Park. flew down to Bengaluru for a closed-door Virtual Reality Programme. Along with industry experts, they assessed the products of top 21 student VR developers, including a game based on the epic battle of Kurukshetra with characters such as Arjuna and Duryodhana, and a virtual Holi festival in which one can play with aliens. 

The participants were shortlisted from various parts of the country as part of the Facebook School of Innovation VR Demo Day. The Facebook School of Innovation is a first-of-its-kind initiative started by the social media giant and Startup Village Collective (Sv.co), to impart students with relevant skill sets about emerging technologies like VR/AR and bridge the gap between academia and industry requirements. 

“Our objective is to build an ecosystem of emerging technologies in India. Our aim is to ensure emerging technologies come to India as fast as (they come to) the rest of the world and VR is the first one we have picked,” said Satyajeet Singh, Head of Platform Partnerships for India and South Asia at Facebook. 

VR is an artificial environment built using software and showcased to the user in such a manner that he sets aside his beliefs and biases and receives it as an actual environment. Augmented reality (AR), on the other hand, is the merger of digital information with the user's actual environment in real time. Unlike VR, which builds a completely artificial environment, AR uses the existing environment and augments it by adding new insights to it.

Singh said the objective of the programme is to provide enough skills and mentorship to students, so as to transform them from job seekers to job creators. “When they come out of the college, they can actually make a decision on which way they have to go and are equipped to start,” added Singh. 

Facebook is also collaborating with T-Hub (Telangana Hub) to provide these technologies to the start-up community via an acceleration programme. 

The VR demo day enabled 10 student teams, shortlisted after a pan-India selection process, to build next-generation product ideas using virtual reality. Among them was Prathamesh Mane, a student of the College of Engineering, Pune, who created a VR-based experience based on the battle of Kurukshetra. The game, which deals with the conflict between two groups of warring cousins, the Kauravas and Pandavas, has characters such as Arjuna, Karna, Bhima and Duryodhana and weapons that players can use, such as bow and arrow and mace. Games based on epic movies like 300 already exist, but I wanted to create something more Indian,” said Mane.

NIT Calicut students Ashik Hameed, Christo Kurian and Muhammed Favas have developed a VR game where players can work together to build a virtual farm, breed cattle and buy and sell farm products in the market. The team plans to turn its idea into a start-up and has also received a grant from the Kerala government. 

A key attraction of the demo days was a VR product based on the Holi festival, created by Kriti Goel and Jivesh Piplani, students of the Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology. The game revolves around a lonely child who has no friends and who meets a bunch of aliens called Gizzies and plays Holi with them. “We are planning to make similar products based on other Indian festivals as well,” said Goel. 

But the team  from Rajasthan consisting of BITS Pilani students, Mayank Bhutani and Koustubh Gupta, walked away with a prize for their VR application. It focused on creating an immersive VR experience of a street cricket player becoming a successful and famous sportsperson. Bhutani said he is planning to launch a VR start-up in the area of education.

Prior to their demonstrations, the teams participated in a 20-week programme that included online and in-person learning sessions to develop their ideas, build low- and high-fidelity prototypes and finally launch the product to customers. Developer training was conducted under the mentorship of industry experts in the field of emerging technologies. The shortlisting process was conducted via a series of workshops conducted by Facebook and Sv.co across India, which saw participation of over 5,000 students.

According to Sanjay Vijayakumar, CEO of Sv.co, India is going to have 500 million youth in the 18-34 age group by 2030 and for the nation to benefit from this "demographic dividend", there is a need to strengthen the academic institutions for delivering quality education. “The weak point in our academic system is that we don’t have the curriculum and faculty to teach the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial revolution of high-speed 5G internet, robotics, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and biotechnology,” said Vijayakumar. “With the Facebook School of Innovation at Sv.co, we are creating the pathway for students in universities to learn industry curriculum in emerging technologies from industry mentors thereby preparing them for the opportunities of the future."

Sastra, a deemed university based in Tamil Nadu is the first institute to sign an agreement with Sv.co for the introduction of the Facebook School of Innovation’s Virtual Reality course for its students. Facebook is planning to reach out to other academic institutes as well. “These are the technologies that the industry needs, but we have a gap, as most colleges don’t teach what the industry needs,” said V Sridharan, CEO at Sastra’s Technology Business Incubator. 

Sastra TBI has set up a modern VR Lab with devices such as Oculus Rift, Oculus GO and other ultra-modern gaming laptops. Students can get their ideas incubated at TBI. Sridharan, who brings business and tech expertise from his long years in the IT industry, was of the view that fresh graduates are facing the problem of unemployment as the curriculum followed in colleges is outdated. “Our objective is to make them employable as well as job creators,” he said.

The demand for VR and AR is expected to soar in the next few years. Worldwide spending on augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) is forecast to be nearly $20.4 billion in 2019, an increase of 68.8 per cent over the $12.1 billion that was expected to be spent in 2018, according to International Data Corporation (IDC). The latest update to IDC's Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide also shows that worldwide spending on AR/VR products and services will continue this strong growth throughout the 2017-2022 forecast period, achieving a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 69.6 per cent.

While some still see AR and VR as technologies reserved for hardcore gamers, many have taken notice of the considerable potential for each across a variety of industries, according to research firm CB Insights. It said as hardware developers make AR and VR headsets more affordable and user-friendly, start-ups are developing new use cases far beyond gaming — applying the technologies to everything from marketing, military to healthcare and space exploration.

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