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‘Sharing is forever caring’ – the inspiring story of masterchef Vikas Khanna and the Feed India food drive

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Launched in 2012, YourStory’s Book Review section features over 325 titles on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation. See also our related columns The Turning Point, Techie Tuesdays, and Storybites.

‘Barkat: The inspiration and story behind one of the world’s largest food drives, FEED INDIA’ traces the journey of Michelin-starred Indian chef Vikas Khanna. It captures influences such as the spirit of generosity infused by his grandmother, and experiences in the langar community kitchens of the Golden Temple.

From tradition to migration, the book is packed with stories, vivid descriptions of life in India and the US, and a range of life lessons. Vikas studied at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University, and Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.

He is the host of TV shows MasterChef India, Twist of Taste, and Mega Kitchens, and has been a guest on MasterChef Australia and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Vikas is now based in New York city.

Here are my seven clusters of takeaways from this 150-page book, which includes over 50 photographs as well. See also my reviews of the related books How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas, Why I Stopped Wearing My Socks, Funding your Startup, Young Turks, I Love Mondays, and Social Entrepreneurship in India.

The power of stories

The book’s lessons are packed in stories. “My whole cooking foundation was laid in humble stories,” Vikas recalls.

For example, his grandmother would tell him the story of Akshaya Patra, the bowl of infinite food. It was given to the Pandavas when they were going on exile.

“Even if you are poor, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are willing to share whatever you have,” she would say. She would also tell him not to complain about wasps on the lemon tree because the tree belongs to all creatures, and that her lemon pickles also contain the blessings of her ancestors.

Vikas describes the operator of the flour grinding machine as a “snowman” because he would often be covered in flour. “The memory of this smell of freshly ground flour has been an irreplaceable part of my life,” he describes.

His grandfather told him that there were some special kitchen utensils upstairs in their home which were used to serve food for people of all communities in the pre-Partition days. The utensils were eventually sold off, but Vikas would go on to later open a museum on utensils.

The joy of community

Vikas recalls the celebrations during the Baisakhi harvest festival and its joyous community spirit. His fondest attachment was to the langar, the community kitchen of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

“I would just stand there looking at everything and smiling at everyone, understanding that power of togetherness, the power of solidarity,” Vikas writes. The stories shared by the volunteers and visitors there also left an everlasting impression on him.

“Some days we are givers, and some days we are receivers,” he adds. This captures the notion of humility, balance and equaliser. “Food is nothing without sharing,” he adds.

Later in college years, Vikas was also impressed by the massive community kitchen at the Krishna temple in Udupi and Mother Teresa’s kitchen in Calcutta. In his early years in the US, he also discovered the power of community kitchens for the homeless at the New York Rescue Mission.

Food as experience and culture

Food is accompanied by stories, emotions, and cultural practices. “You cannot disconnect memories, pain, sorrows, happiness, and generosity from a kitchen,” Vikas affirms.

Food is infinite in its dimensions, though it is often reduced to a single dimension in a recipe. Vikas also narrates childhood experiences of the power of sitting and eating together, while watching Ramayana on TV.

“What we eat is part of our cultural identity; what we share is part of our cultural fabric. Food represents our past, present, and future,” Vikas eloquently describes.

“Cooking is an expression of love, it cannot be anything else,” he writes, recalling the compliments his grandmother would receive for her rotis.

His college education in South India opened him up to the sheer diversity of Indian cuisine. His friends introduced him to local delicacies like idli with jackfruit inside.

“There’s no bigger vision than understanding that it takes the entire universe to grow a grain of rice, that the entire universe’s power is inside that little seed,” Vikas writes, as he later embarked on a film project.

Passion and quality

From his teenage years, Vikas developed a flair for cooking, and would get paid for making kulchas or dahi-bhalla for friends and relatives. He also mastered cooking with the tandoor.

“This was the beginning of all the little things coming together,” he recalls. His first business in Amritsar was called Lawrence Kitchen, named after a place his grandparents knew in Lahore.

His early lessons were in how to keep a balance between business and charity while running a commercial operation. One of his uncles noticed his passion for cooking, and urged his parents to support a career as a chef instead of following his brother’s footsteps in engineering.

A visit to Maurya Sheraton in Delhi was an eye-opener, and Vikas went on to study in Manipal. His passion and honesty made a mark, and he went on to train in Nepal, Delhi, and Bombay.

Ups and downs

Vikas also recalls the ups and downs of his life’s journeys, such as the pain during Operation Blue Star and the hope in the aftermath.

“Whatever you’re going through, if you’re going to have resilience and faith, you will always come back stronger,” he emphasises.

“Hope will always be there with people who have positive energy,” his grandmother advised him.

During the 1992 riots in Bombay, a kind Muslim woman gave Vikas refuge with her family when he was lost. “This was God’s way of showing me a side of India which is beautiful, which shelters everyone without asking any questions,” he gratefully acknowledges.

“Remember that that’s your family too. Your success will also belong to her,” his grandmother reminded him.

When he went through a rough business patch in Amritsar, his brother reminded him of Jonathan Livingston Seagull who learnt to fly higher but also came back to inspire the whole community of seagulls. Vikas went on to pursue higher studies and become a chef in New York.

Despite some of the hardships and prejudices he experienced in the US and France, what kept him going were mottos like “They came to bury me. They forgot that I was a seed.”

Giving back

In New York City, Vikas founded Tulsi Caterers, Sanskrit Culinary Arts, and the restaurant Spice Route. He also priced cheaper meals for Indian students, feeding their nostalgia for home food.

In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, Vikas organised a fundraiser drive called New York Chefs Cooking for Life. The momentum came from the spirituality of his growing-up years, he describes.

Vikas began to see himself not just as a chef but as an ambassador for Indian food and Indian culture in the West. He describes his book Utsav as a culinary journey of India through food stories. It included a story on one of the biggest festivals of transgenders in India, a community who is marginalised though they bless many important occasions of society.

“Even though I was born in a Hindu family, we celebrated everything in Hinduism as well as all the Sikh festivals, Eid, Christmas, and Mahavir Jayanti,” Vikas recalls.

When he was awarded a Michelin star, his grandmother reminded him: “Never wear the crown on your head all the time.” The award was just a small part of who he was; it belonged as well to the street vendors, langar volunteers, customers, and even jealous chefs who shaped him.

The heartbreaking stories of the pandemic impact in India would spur him to launch one of the world’s largest food drives, Feed India.

Crisis and perspective

In the aftermath of the 2008 recession when his cooking school had to be shut down, Vikas received inspiring advice from the Dalai Lama, whom he met through a close friend.

“There’s nothing such as an end; it’s always the beginning of something new, something fresh, something more important and significant,” Vikas recalls. He traveled to the Himalayas, and worked on a book titled Return to the Rivers.

After a shocking shooting incident at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, Vikas devoted himself to inter-faith connectivity through a documentary series called Holy Kitchens. “Food is a uniting force,” he affirms, observing food-sharing practices in Islam, especially during Ramadan.

When his food drive faced lockdown challenges and even some fraudulent scamsters in India, right in the middle of his own hectic schedule in the US, his mother helped Vikas find his moral compass.

“I want you to rise to this occasion because I have given birth to a warrior who is going to stand in the middle of the battlefield and feed India,” she said on the phone.

Spurred on, Vikas and Feed India would eventually serve over 65 million meals. Support came from the National Disaster Response Force and a host of corporate and individual supporters such as India Gate Basmati Rice, GOQii, Lalit Hotel, Keshav Foundation, Haji Ali Dargah, Vodafone India Foundation, and many others.

“I feel that the ritual of feeding people is growing into a movement. Soon, we will find a way to make this a habit,” Vikas observes.

“You also have to understand that today you have the privilege of giving, which you might not have tomorrow. For me, this is the most amazing and important part of growing up in India,” he affirms.

In sum, this is a must-read book not just for entrepreneurs or food buffs, but anyone who wants to make a positive impact on the world. The message of inter-faith community is even more important in these times of increasing hate crimes, bigotry and intolerance.

“You can be in any profession, and you still have the power to feed your nation,” Vikas signs off.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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Why graphic novels are lucrative IP for Web3: From MEFaverse to metaverse

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Marvel’s multi-billion dollar IP enterprise is eating up the film and streaming market — but the metaverse is offering new opportunities and creating a whole new market.

Marvel is valued at nearly $6 billion for films alone, $40 billion for streaming and about $3 billion for consumer products, according to a 2021 Forbes analysis. While the media giant dominates the lion’s share of graphic novel IP in entertainment within film and streaming, the metaverse offers new opportunities for graphic novel IP. The ‘metaverse in entertainment’ market share is expected to increase to $28.92 billion by 2026. 

The entertainment market is essentially expanding with the creation of the metaverse, therefore presenting opportunities to replicate the lucrative success that Marvel has enjoyed. But what made Marvel so popular, and why is the multiverse primed for the metaverse? 

Since the inception of the metaverse as a concept, some of the earliest explorations have included the creation — and adaptation of — graphic novels for this new virtual environment. From Method Man’s comic book MEFaverse, to the adaptation of Dan LuVisi’s iconic Last Man Standing: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter, to Killtopia catering to Japan’s ‘Otaku’ community of manga and animé fans.

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But why is graphic novel IP so attractive to directors writing for a digital medium with interactive audiences? And what opportunities are potentially being left on the table? To understand the attraction of graphic novel IP, we only need to look at the formula of success that Marvel and DC have built. 

An ever-expanding world

Marvel’s IP is not one story, but a universe that continues to expand. Recent editions to Marvel’s onscreen world include She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Ms. Marvel and the upcoming Secret Invasion. The stories that come to life in film and TV are often based on specific heroes within that universe — or, more aptly, the multiverse.

In film, appearance-altering costumes, special FX make-up and visual FX (VFX) enable directors to cast different actors to play the same character in the franchise. The most popular and talented actors, with the strongest following in the target demographic for the box office, can have their turn playing the hero. In fact, actors no longer need to sign long-haul multi-movie contracts with Marvel.

The metaverse offers even more creative diversity. Graphic novel characters can be customizable according to the themes of different concept artists, and the same character can travel through a manga world into one that’s photorealistic. Perhaps a good interpretation is Dr. Strange’s journey through the multiverses, as we see him enter a variety of differently stylized worlds until he eventually finds himself surreally realized as a colorful gelatinous shape. 

One of the key differentiators between a virtual world and a game within the metaverse — or what will be the metaverse — is this interoperability, the way in which an avatar could be used in different virtual worlds. The way avatars are translated stylistically in those different worlds is a key focus for metaverse builders. And it’s something Marvel has been doing well for some time. People love the graphic novel style of Marvel films and how they not only pay homage to the original art form but also amplify the movie experience with state-of-the-art VFX. 

For example, LMS: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter is being translated for the metaverse after amassing a core fanbase. LMS is simultaneously a scrapbook-style graphic novel, a character bible for the anti-hero Gabriel and an introduction to the colorful yet deadly world of ‘New Amerika’. Initially released as a series of artworks, LMS soon gathered a solid fanbase that demanded more of Dan LuVisi’s world. The rights to LMS were bought by Section 9, which approached metaverse-as-a-service company Sequin AR with the idea of creating an LMS metaverse. With a rich world and a pre-existing community, Sequin believed LMS was the perfect property for a metaverse environment. 

The attractiveness of graphic novel IP

Sequin AR’s CEO Rob DeFranco explains why the graphic novel IP was so attractive: “The world that Dan created is vivid, imaginative, and full of pop-culture references with a sharp satirical tone that makes it a model property for the metaverse. There is a big community already in place for LMS. For example, a Comic-Con special edition toy of Gabriel, created by the popular brand Funko, sold out on the first day of the convention. Since the book first launched 10 years ago, there has been a cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love.” 

Graphic novels rely on captivating imagery, along with compelling stories. The community building the metaverse is a blend of creatives, technologists and storytellers, similar to the teams that produce the Marvel universe. For example, the team behind Method Man’s MEFaverse includes Method Man himself, and renowned graphics artist Jonathan Winbush of Winbush Immersive, with Xsens motion tracking technology helping them translate real-life movement into the digital world. It’s no coincidence that Winbush built his own brand as a creator from his time working at Marvel. 

“The trajectory of the NFT/Web3 space as a whole, in my opinion, only has one direction to go: up,” says Method Man. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t, as brands and individuals realize the unique opportunities and potential this space offers, as well as the utility it provides. That said, my hope is that it can continue to grow while remaining mindful of values such as inclusivity and positivity, which are both pillars of the MEFaverse community.”

The metaverse and the story of good vs. evil 

The metaverse has the potential to be many things, good or bad. Most metaverse evangelists also acknowledge how human influence tends to invade — and sometimes spoil — the utopian promise of future technology.

For example, Aragorn Meulendijks, Chief Metaverse Officer (CMO) from Your Open Metaverse, a distributed metaverse for streaming Web3 content, recently shared his candid thoughts on Elaine Pringle Schwitter’s HeadsTalk Podcast. According to Meulendijks, the mission for those building the metaverse needs to align with the reality of flawed human nature. This sentiment is omnipresent in Marvel; the premise of superhero films is that good and evil always exist in tandem, and even heroes are flawed. 

While there are inevitable flaws, the multiverse can also be employed altruistically. Representation and connection are frequent themes in graphic novels, often speaking to those who don’t feel part of mainstream pop culture. This links back to Winbush’s work on the MEFaverse.

“We wanted to create more ‘metamasks’ or PFPs with different traits to represent our community,” he explained. “Method Man’s motivation in creating the MEFaverse was to show his fans their powers, the unique traits that make them who they are but in the superhero realm. Method Man wanted everyone that was excited about the MEFaverse to have a mask that truly represents them. He wanted his community to be shown their unique powers in a superhero realm.”

The building blocks of film production are being used to build the metaverse

The technology that underpins movie production is driving metaverse creation. For example, motion capture is harnessing and translating movement to avatars, while Unreal Engine is being used to create the worlds themselves.

Charles Borland, founder of real-time studio Voltaku explained: “When I was an actor in a video game called Grand Theft Auto IV, I would spend a lot of time in a mocap suit, and I’d been on a lot of TV and film shoots and saw just how inefficient the Hollywood production process is. I remember thinking, holy cow, when this technology and the economics get to a certain point, all of this gaming technology and real-time technology is going to revolutionize filmmaking and how you make content.” 

Talking about the use of technology in Killtopia, Charles elaborated: “If we’re going to build this in a game engine, like Unreal Engine, then we [had]to do things like set up a camera inside of Unreal. We knew we were going to have an actress and we were going to try and do this in real-time, but one of the things we were looking at was real-time ray tracing, and to push the envelope on that. We couldn’t go into the studio and do full camera tracking, so we wanted to find something inertia-based. Using the Xsens suit, capturing the raw mocap data, enabled us to create the avatars”. 

From an investment standpoint, how Marvel’s magic formula for success translates to the metaverse is clear. But IP in the metaverse goes far beyond a franchise of characters. Fans build on these worlds themselves, becoming creators in their own right. And in order to create, they need to feel invested. And that’s where the technology underpinning interoperability is key.

Blockchain blockbusters

Killtopia’s Charles Borland explains: “To invest in interoperability, stakeholders and project owners need to know that the assets for whom they’re building aren’t going anywhere. Of course, that’s if by ‘decentralized,’ you mean you’re applying blockchain. What’s great about that is it’s immutable and it’s public. So I know if I build around a project, even if it tanks, my pipeline will stay. Because the things I’ve been referencing and looking at are going to stay online in this decentralized file hosting system, which is great.”

This is an example of how the technology used in metaverse creation is improving the entire production pipeline. Accelerating the content production workflow, and safeguarding the assets for future use, is a challenge even Marvel faces. 

Cultural shift between content creators and consumers

Borland highlights the cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love. COVID-19 drove the rapid acceleration in digital experiences, helping us to forge genuine connections when real-life interaction wasn’t possible. The convergence of these behavioral changes and technology advancements is now paving the way for the future metaverse, with mixed reality live performances — which became more prevalent during the recent pandemic — offering a hint of what we might expect. 

Brett Ineson, founder of Animatrik Film Design, which has hosted mixed reality performances for Justin Bieber, Pentakill with Wave XR and even virtual circuses with Shocap Entertainment, says: “Nailing the look and feel of a world will be paramount to delivering the illusion of reality, and that’s where capture technology will come into play. Motion capture will be essential for creating lifelike animation for characters and creatures in these virtual worlds so that players feel like they are interacting with real beings.”

Technologists and storytellers are helping to unleash the potential of new IP into the metaverse. Right now, the reality is that the metaverse does not exist, but it represents the next step in immersive and engaging entertainment. The more engaged a community is, the more invested it is in the story. Powered motion tracking, performance capture, interoperable avatars, virtual worlds and hip hop artists-turned-super heroes, the metaverse is prime real estate for the next Marvel enterprise. 

Rob DeFranco is CEO of Sequin AR.

Brett Ineson is cofounder of Animatrik Film Studios.

Remco Sikkema is senior marketing communications manager at Movella and Xsens.

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Fortnite Chapter 4 debuts with Unreal Engine 5.1

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Fornite Battle Royale Chapter 4 arrived today and it makes use of Unreal Engine 5.1, Epic Games announced.

The debut shows how tightly Epic Games ties its overall strategy together. Fortnite is the prime revenue generator for the company, reaching tens of millions of players who buy in-game items. And Unreal Engine is the game developer tool that makes the advances in Chapter 4 available. To sell developers on the engine, Epic eats its own dog food by building Fortnite with Unreal to showcase what it can do.

Unreal Engine 5.1 provides new features that make the game look and run better. Unreal Engine 5 itself debuted earlier this year and it Unreal Engine 5 ushers in a generational leap in visual fidelity, bringing a new level of detail to game worlds like the Battle Royale Island.

Shadows and lighting are better in Fortnite with Unreal Engine 5.1.

Next-gen Unreal Engine 5 features such as Nanite, Lumen, Virtual Shadow Maps, and Temporal Super Resolution — all features that can make Fortnite Battle Royale shine on next-generation systems such as PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and cloud gaming.

Epic Games said that over half of all announced next-gen games are being created with Unreal Engine. And it said developers can now take advantage of updates to the Lumen dynamic global illumination and reflections system. This is important stuff if you’re a game developer, or you’re expecting to build the metaverse.

Epic has made updates to the Nanite virtualized micropolygon geometry system, and virtual shadow maps that lay the groundwork for games and experiences running at 60 frames per second (fps) on next-gen consoles and capable PCs. These improvements will enable fast-paced competition and detailed simulations without latency, Epic said.

Additionally, Nanite has also added a programmable rasterizer to allow for material-driven animations and deformations via world position offset, as well as opacity masks. This development paves the way for artists to use Nanite to program specific objects’ behavior, for example Nanite-based foliage with leaves blowing in the wind.

Nanite provides highly-detailed architectural geometry. Specifically, buildings are rendered from millions of polygons in real time, and each brick, stone, wood plank, and wall trim is modeled. Natural landscapes are highly-detailed too. Individual trees have around 300,000 polygons, and each stone, flower, and blade of grass is modeled.

On top of that, Lumen reflections provide high-quality ray traced reflections on glossy materials and water.

Water and shadows look prettier in Fortnite Battle Royale Chapter 4.

Also, Lumen provides real-time global illumination at 60 frames per second (FPS). You’ll see beautiful interior spaces with bounce lighting, plus characters reacting to the lighting of their surroundings. (For example, red rugs may bounce red light onto your outfit.) Also, Outfits that have emissive (a.k.a. glowing) qualities will scatter light on nearby objects and surfaces.

Virtual Shadow Maps allow for highly detailed shadowing. Each brick, leaf, and modeled detail will cast a shadow, and character self-shadowing is extremely accurate. This means that things like hats and other small details on characters will also cast shadows.

Temporal Super Resolution is an upgrade over Temporal Anti-Aliasing in Fortnite, and allows for high-quality visuals at a high framerate.

With the introduction of these UE5 features in Fortnite Battle Royale, Fortnite’s Video settings have changed on PC. You can see them here.

To run Nanite, the minimum hardware requirements are Nvidia Maxwell-generation cards or newer or AMD GCN-generation cards or newer.

For Nanite, Lumen, Virtual Shadow Maps, and Temporal Super Resolution to be available in Fortnite on your PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X|S, make sure the “120 FPS Mode” setting (in the “graphics” section of the Video settings) is set to off.

Unreal’s reach has grown well beyond games. Unreal Engine has now been used on over 425 film and TV productions, and is integrated into over 300 virtual production stages worldwide. Unreal Engine usage in animation has grown exponentially, from 15 productions between 2015 and 2019 to over 160 productions from 2020 to 2022.

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Is It Time To Talk About A More Sustainable Approach To Serving Our Customers?

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At a recent event, I spoke to a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) about how it was not untypical for him to have a day of 14 back-to-back half-hour meetings. He explained that this started during the early part of the pandemic, and by 4 pm, he was absolutely exhausted and struggled to stay focused and pay attention. He added, however, that over time he got used to such a heavy schedule and was able to manage his energy and concentration better.

On hearing this story, I commented that while I often hear stories like this from all sorts of executives at different firms, I am often left wondering how folks end up doing any work if they are in back-to-back meetings all day.

I asked slightly tongue-in-cheek how we had gotten to his point, given that I’d never seen a job description that contained any objective that required a person to attend as many meetings as physically possible.

This raised a few smiles and quite a few nods.

Whilst my comment was playful, it also contained a serious point and one that I have made to many executives about how they should actively manage their time to create the space necessary to really think about and understand the challenges they are facing.

I was thinking about that conversation again the other day when I came across some research from Microsoft about the impact on our brains and emotional state when we have back-to-back meetings.

Using an electroencephalography [EEG] cap, the Microsoft research team were able to monitor the electrical activity in the brain of back-to-back meeting participants. Unsurprisingly, they found that back-to-back virtual meetings are stressful, and a series of meetings can decrease your ability to focus and engage.

However, the research also found that introducing short breaks between meetings to allow people to move, stretch, gather their thoughts or grab a glass of water can help reduce the cumulative buildup of stress across a series of meetings.

That’s really useful insight, and I hope that more executives and their teams embrace the introduction of these short breaks between meetings to reduce stress, support well-being and maintain attention levels.

But I’ve also been thinking about whether these research findings have a broader application.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether the calls taken by customer service agents could be analogous to a series of very short, back-to-back meetings. If they are, that has ramifications for the amount of stress customer service representatives have to deal with. This is brought into sharp focus when you consider that the average customer service representative is often expected to be constantly on calls for the duration of an 8-hour shift apart from a 30-minute lunch break and two 15 min breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

So, is it any wonder that the contact center industry faces perennial burnout and high levels of staff churn?

Suppose we want to build a more sustainable approach to serving our customers, particularly over live channels like the phone or video. If we do, we need to think more clearly and empathetically about our agents and what they go through.

Now, I know that technology is evolving to help with this challenge and that’s great. But we shouldn’t stop there. Building a more attractive and sustainable contact center model will require us to rethink both contact center operations and their economics.

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