A young girl with jet black hair and huge round eyes suddenly appeared in the middle of the stage as if conjured by ancient Khmer magic.
Standing before a rapt audience, she spoke: “Hello! I am Rachana. And I am the virtual ambassador of Technovation Programme. Don’t forget to join me next season.”
The virtual character of Rachana is a product of hologram technology, recently developed in Cambodia.
It caught the attention and admiration of participants, notably the Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Hang Chuon Naron and then-US Ambassador to the Kingdom William Heidt.
Sovanvatey Khuon, a former young innovator of USAID-funded project Development Innovations (DI) and head of the I Am Rachana! project, says: “At the time, the project received much attention because of its novelty. A hologram technology of this scale has never been seen in the programme before.
“[Then-US Ambassador] Heidt told me, ‘Your Rachana is cool!’ But at the time, no one really understood the concept of holograms. Why did we develop a hologram character? More importantly, how did we come about creating a character named Rachana?”
The new hologram technology aims to promote and encourage women’s participation in the technology sector. A report of the DI and USAID published last year showed that only 8.5 per cent of Cambodian high school girls chose to pursue a degree in information technology (IT) due to a lack of female representation in the sector.
Khuon addressed this issue by creating Rachana, a digital role model for young girls who aspire towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – (STEM) related careers, last year.
“During the inception of the project, I was a Technovation coding mentor.
“I met some girls and asked what they thought of being in the technology sector. I found that they liked doing research. So we conceptualised a character that had the profile and behaviour of a 13-year-old girl.”
Recounting the details, Khuon, 23, says I Am Rachana! started when she participated in a Technovation event as a young innovator of Development Innovations.
Technovation is a global tech entrepreneurship programme for girls aged 10 to 18. It promotes women empowerment in the usually male-dominated technology field.
Passionate about the project, Khuon volunteered to spearhead the initiative and represent young innovators in Cambodia.
She continues: “It took me about two to three weeks to study this concept.
“I ran campaigns and research. As I Am Rachana! needed to be developed in three-dimensional form, we had to wait for the experts to do it.
“Afterward, we had to create a hologram projector, which was fairly easy.
“We simply had to cut a crystal plastic in the shape of a pyramid and put it upside down on a smartphone. Finally, we screened the 3D image of Rachana through the projector, and we had a hologram!
“My boss told me, ‘we have now created an animation. But we don’t want it to appear on screen as a normal animation. We’ll try something new – a hologram’. I was really surprised because I rarely heard this word.
“I thought if I could pull this off, it would be something completely new. So I started my research. First, I wanted the character to sit and speak in front of the minister.
“I spent a lot of time doing research on this. Since we were working on limited time and resources and had no local experts, we decided to reduce the project to show the hologram on a smaller scale.”
The I Am Rachana! animation lasted for 30 minutes and introduced the first step to encouraging young Cambodian women to be more active in the tech field.
“We always find ways to empower women in this sector. When I was a young innovator, I created an I Am Rachana! page on social media.
Now, the team has created a comic book, which was later shared on social media. In the future, we may produce other animations.”
The presentation of the project saw its developers’ desired response – youths who attended the event started showing interest in learning the hologram technology.
Khuon said that she even began writing a blog for learners who wanted to know how to build their own hologram projector.
Khuon graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2017 with a degree in Computer Science and became a young innovator of Development Innovations.
“When I joined DI, I wanted to focus on utilising technology for social development (ICT4D).
“Every aspect of technology that could help aid community issues interested me.”
Besides being a volunteer in media communication at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), Khuon has also attended training courses in Myanmar on media literacy and data journalism, as well as a Women’s Empowerment Programme in Austria under the support of the Ban Ki-Moon Centre.