Computer, this is my story

16 January 2004

Once upon a time in Africa, there was a computer programme that allowed you to create your own stories, choosing your own characters, selecting the backgrounds to your scenes, and writing your own dialogue – in your own language. It was called Storymaker …

icomtek, the business unit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has developed a software programme to help preserve South Africa’s rich storytelling heritage.

What makes Storymaker unique is that it is multilingual, making it applicable to the diverse South African context.

Users can currently create stories in English, Afrikaans and isiZulu. The words of the characters appear in speech bubbles above them, and subtitles beneath contain translations of the words. Once a user has created a story in one language, it can be played back in another.

Translation from one language to another presented one of the main difficulties for Kim Gush, the project designer from icomtek. “You cannot translate words directly into other languages as they do not always have the same meaning”, Gush explains.

To solve this problem, the programme was adapted to work on a phrase-by-phrase basis. This allows users to voice record their own phrases into their stories. First-language speakers in English, Afrikaans and isiZulu were consulted to ensure accuracy of the translations.

The programme has been developed in such a way that other languages can be added to it in future.

“Storymaker is a home-grown technology based on the open source philosophy. It uses indigenous languages, symbols and metaphors”, says Gush, who has been working on the project since May 2003 along with colleagues Rosalie de Villiers, Marelie Davel, Soogandhree Naidoo, Elaine Olivier, and Kagiso Chikane.

“This programme demonstrates the strength of human language technology (HLT) and it brings out the creativity of the users”, says Gush. “It is not limited to children – it is not just about playing a game. Users benefit because it fires their creativity.”

“Storymaker is well aligned with icomtek’s drive to contribute to the move to take South Africa from a consumption basis of participation in the information society, towards a better balance between consumption and creation,” said Johan Eksteen, the director of icomtek.

“The programme also strengthens the initiatives of local content development and the recognition of the value of local cultures and languages within the social fabric of South Africa”, Eksteen added.

“The drive to develop technology appropriate to our context, taking into account the power of diversity and various levels of knowledge literacy and other contextual aspects, is very important to icomtek, and Storymaker contributes to this.”

The primary focus area of the Storymaker application will be on the Digital Doorway, icomtek’s multimedia kiosk, while it can be used on Linux and Windows as well.

The Digital Doorway is an innovative undertaking that seeks to investigate the concept of minimally invasive education as an alternative way to promote widescale computer literacy in support of the information society.

The concept aims to provide people in rural and disadvantaged areas with computer equipment, and allow them to experiment and learn without formal training and with minimal external input.

Source: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

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