Women in VR talk business and diversity in a burgeoning tech industry

Sports and education are two of the key areas in which both individuals and companies can become successful in virtual reality today, ahead of the impending launch of the major headsets later this year.

Sports and education are two of the key areas in which both individuals and companies can become successful in virtual reality today, ahead of the impending launch of the major headsets later this year, according to a panel of VR experts.

“An easy concept for the mainstream to grasp is the power to teleport or to time travel,” explained Helen Situ, Virtual Reality Evangelist at NextVR, at a panel titled "Women Lead VR: Executives Discuss Content Creation and Diversity" at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this morning. “People want premium seat tickets to major sporting events. They want to be able to join in wherever they were in the world, so long as they’re online.

Situ appeared alongside three other pioneers in the VR industry, Nonny de la Pena, best known for her VR-based immersive journalism, Christine Cattano, who works at Framestore’s VR Studio and has created VR experiences for HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series and the film Interstellar, and Shauna Heller, founder of Clay Park VR, and former developer relations specialist for Oculus VR.

For Heller, sporting events are a strong opportunity, but new areas of VR's potential are yet to emerge. “In the short term sports events or 'time-travel' apps to specific events is a great way to get people into [the medium], but I think as it evolves it will become a lot more complex and nuanced,” she said. “How we approach VR will be not where we are right now. We’re currently retrofitting the creative areas we’ve all come from, whether it’s film or games. But VR is a long term play.”

“I think the VR industry is focusing a lot on gaming, but I’d like to see more money put toward therapeutic uses,” said Cattano. “I think that’s where the mainstream audience begins to see the value in the medium.”

Education is also a key area of potential growth according to the panel. “VR is a powerful tool for education,” said Heller. “Instead of merely putting your front row of the Lakers game, it has the capacity to place you in the front row of a learning environment. It directs your concentration. The cell phone falls away. The emails fall away. VR sharpens your focus. VR can be so many things. It can become something that saves time, energy and even saves people from disenfranchisement.”

“We are scratching the surface at the moment,” said Cattano.

Despite the uncertainty of the medium’s future, Heller is adamant that there are tremendous opportunities right now for people who work across creative disciplines. “In the short term there’s a serious lack of good producers who are nimble and have a youthful mentality that’s needed in a quickly evolving medium,” she said. “Great coordinator skills are in demand. If you’re a game designer it’s time to put together a reel to show how you think in 3D. If you’re in advertising and marketing it’s time to start looking at how native advertising will come to platforms. There’s a lot of room right now."

For de la Pena, audio design is key in making narrative VR experiences work, offering expansive opportunities for experts who have worked in the world of so-called “framed” video game development. “The gaming community already has a wonderful understanding of how to use audio to create momentum and lead players, and that is a crucial component of this work,” she said. “Being able to utilize techniques from game design world how do we move a story along without framing or close-ups; it has to be audio.”

The session also grappled with the issue of gender diversity in the medium. The panel, while expressing positive sentiments about the increased diversity compared to when VR first emerged, in the late 1980s, said that we still have a long way to go.

“The industry is still not diverse enough,” said de la Pena. “Fortunately VR is coming into its maturity at a time when we’re much more aware of gender imbalance; I’m hopeful that we will see a more diverse system. When I spoke at the first silicon valley VR gathering I was one of three women in a room of hundreds. It’s improving all the time, but we’re not there yet.”

In Heller’s view, there are typically more women involved in film production side of film entertainment, something that has had an effect in increasing diversity in the VR industry. “On the gaming and tech side, it's been my experience that you see fewer women,” she said. “There are more women in the production industry. What’s exciting about VR is that, as these cultures come together, video with VR industries, we’re quickly getting more women coming in.”

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