Mfundo Maneli is a computer scientist on a mission to help South African forensic investigators to better “read” and understand crime scenes. It’s his way of potentially helping to convict criminals based on evidence collected. His tools of choice? Augmented reality software and tablets equipped with built-in laser scanners that can be bought from most computer shops.
It’s a concept that can add further value to the arsenal of tools that detectives have at hand, believes the 28-year old from Gqeberha. Its development formed part of his MSc studies in Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), which he received in September.
“My research is geared towards providing a low-cost solution for crime scene investigators in low-resource areas such as Africa,” he says.
My research is geared towards providing a low-cost solution for crime scene investigators in low-resource areas such as Africa. – MFUNDO MANELI
Maneli used LIDAR (an acronym for light detection and ranging) technology contained in the 5th Generation iPad Pro. LIDAR is a type of laser technology that captures three dimensional (3D) point cloud data of objects or surfaces. Images are then created by measuring the time that it takes for reflected light to return to the receiver (one that in this case is contained within a tablet equipped with a suitable LIDAR laser).
As part of his research, Maneli has fed such scans into the Vuforia software engine to create 3D renders of a scene.
He says there are many advantages to using such scans along with photographs of a crime scene. It provides investigators with 360-degree 3D views of a setting. Lense warping isn’t an issue, nor is good lighting. The images created can be stored and referred back to whenever a scene needs to be revisited or re-investigated. Because only one scan of an area is needed to capture what is going on, a potential crime scene doesn’t get contaminated, and potential evidence and clues not inadvertently lost.
Maneli tested and fine-tuned the option after scanning and processing two staged crime scenes. He also had long chats with some crime scene investigators. Although not yet satisfied with the visual quality of the rendered 3D data that is currently being obtained through the LiDAR scanner of choice, he hopes that the work can be taken forward and tailored further.
Our interview takes place in the European city of Heidelberg. It is home to Germany’s oldest university and four renowned Max Planck research institutes, among others. The city has low crime levels, and at first sight it feels world’s apart from the crime statistics that are part and parcel of South Africa’s heritage.
Maneli was visiting the city as part of the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum. He was among 200 young mathematicians and computer scientists from across the world who were able to meet some of the greatest minds in their field. Along with fellow UWC computer science student Kessel Okinga-Koumou he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Raj Reddy, one of the initial brains behind artificial intelligence (AI), Vinton Cerf who helped lay the groundwork for the Internet, Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffy, the fathers of practical security related cryptology, and Alexei Efros, who produced ground-breaking data-driven approaches to computer graphics and computer vision.
Their work – and that of other laureates of some of the major prizes in computer science and mathematics – have laid the groundwork and provided the tools for much of the work that Maneli and his fellow young researchers at HLF are busy with.
It’s not his first visit to Germany, Maneli says. In Grade 8 he spent four weeks in Aachen, some 300 kilometres away from Heidelberg, as part of a student exchange programme. Lots of water has since run in the sea – or in this case, the nearby Neckar River.
Maneli is currently laying the groundwork for his PhD research, which will commence in 2024 and will again see him tackle issues of public safety. He is reading up on related papers that he scours for on online academic databases such as Google Scholar and Scopus. So far, he has not yet found much research on how immersive technologies and machine learning can be used in terms of public safety, and hopes to address the matter through his doctoral research.
The energetic all-rounder is currently also immersing himself in the role of teaching assistant to students following an accredited one year long Postgraduate Diploma in e-Skills Development with Immersive Technologies. He teaches students about augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mobile development and immersive virtual reality, and always makes sure that they don’t leave for home without fully grasping the necessary concepts.
It’s the same course that took Maneli to UWC in 2021, after having completed a Diploma and then an Advanced Diploma in Software Development at the Nelson Mandela University in 2019 and 2020.
“It felt easy, because everything was just so interesting,” he remembers his first year in Cape Town.
It felt easy, because everything was just so interesting. – MFUNDO MANELI
In September he received his MSc degree Magna Cum Laude, and in so doing became a trailblazer. Maneli is the first ARVR Master’s student to graduate from UWC. When it was started in 2019, the postgraduate programme was the first of its kind at a South African university. According to the UWC website it “equips students to understand the digital divide and develop innovative solutions to bridging the digital divide in developing countries”.
Maneli credits his father, Gqeberha medical doctor Patrice Thamsanqa Maneli, for challenging him to set the bar higher, and his supervisor, Dr Omowunmi Isafiade, for being a true mentor.
He admits to having had a bumpy ride at school, and to having only really found his feet when in Grade 10 he enrolled at St George’s College in the Windy City. Then he failed his first year at university – but found his true north when he started researching aspects of computer science rather than just focusing on practical software coding and development. Lecturing has also earthed him.
“I understand how students learn, based on my own failures and how I would have liked to be lectured. I understand people from different backgrounds. Some students simply take longer to grasp work, and need more time to get the concepts we are working with.”
- This interview was made possible through support received from the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation.