It's a warm morning in March and Jenn Duong is sitting on the stoop of a soundstage pondering the future of virtual reality. "I love interactive virtual reality. I play that all the time, but I think the unique thing is you're putting someone into a headset right now. I don't know if it will be this way forever," she says. "In my dreams, VR and augmented reality [AR] will converge in glasses that are like ours, and we'll take them on and off."
Duong, who recently turned 21, is a freelance VR director who got her start at Mack Sennett Studios and 1215creative; she's also the co-founder of SH//FT (Shaping Holistic Inclusion in Future Technology) and the group Women in VR. And she did all this without being able to legally drink or rent a car.
"We had a colleague that ran a VR company and I was like, 'I'm a fast learner. Hire me.'" —Jenn Duong
Duong is one of those young mavens who is both highly adaptive and willing to take chances, which makes her well suited for the high-stakes slings and arrows of tech. She eschewed a more predictable path (college, a business degree, all that jazz) for a career in the California gold rush of VR and AR tech. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a Vietnamese-Chinese household, Duong moved to Redondo Beach when she was a teenager. It was there that she caught the bug for theater and film. She sold sweatshirts to raise funds to buy her first camera. She also taught herself Photoshop to design cover art for Asian DVDs she'd rip off the internet so her family could watch them, which in turn led to learning editing and motion graphics.
Although her mother wanted her to attend business school, the young autodidact applied and was accepted into NYU's film school, but she was concerned about how much debt she was going to incur. That all became moot when she "fucked up and forgot to send in a piece of paper to the financial aid office." She continues, "My biological father is out of my life, so I couldn't provide his financials, but I blanked on doing it for NYU." She wasn't wild about any of her options, so she enrolled in community college.
Then she caught the VR bug. At first, she says, she didn't really get it. "But after I got an internship at Speculative Theory, I'm like, 'Holy shit, this is it,'" she recalls. "So we had a colleague that ran a VR company and I was like, 'I'm a fast learner. Hire me. I'll be one of the best hires you ever have.' And then for some reason they did, and that's kind of how I got my VR career kickstarted."
She dropped out of school and went to work. "It was one of those things where, when I told my parents, they thought I was insane. I was like, I have a really unique opportunity here, and it was kind of the first time that I realized that it's so important that you live your life for yourself and not anyone else," she says.
While at Speculative Theory, Duong and Julie Young co-founded Women in VR, which connects women in the industry and vets all its prospective members. But it's not just for women; a fifth of the membership is men. "We very much feel like it's important to have a male perspective in these different types of conversations," Duong explains. "But what's really interesting is a lot of our conversations aren't even necessarily around gender; it's more like actual technical questions, like, 'How do we do this?'?" She also co-founded SH//FT, an organization dedicated to underrepresented voices in VR, which has, for example, established VR scholarships for women and minorities.
Duong's debut as a VR director came in April with "Three Points to the Recollection of My Future," which is a VR music video experience and collaboration with the singer Banks. The project — an intense undertaking — turns various songs by the singer into a poetic, dance-driven interactive experience, which is an interesting experiment with the music video format.
Duong reminds that this isn't VR's first rodeo. "This is the sixth wave of VR. But this is the one that seems to be staying the most. I think everyone's figuring out what works and what doesn't for them and especially, like, why is this story being told in a 360 setting instead of in a flat setting?" The future, it appears, is constantly evolving and as uncertain as ever.