VR lends itself well to art and entertainment but it can also provide a crucial lifeline for those with medical needs. Photograph: Philipp Guelland/EPA
Despite a well-documented gender imbalance within the tech industry, a recent survey suggests that when it comes to VR, women are starting to take up leadership roles in greater numbers
When the Arab spring uprising began in 2010, film-maker Tamara Shogaolu was living in Egypt. As she travelled around the country collecting oral histories of people’s experiences, she realised the role virtual reality (VR) could play in showcasing these stories. Her VR documentary, Another Dream, debuted at the Tribeca film festival in April. It follows an Egyptian lesbian couple who, facing the post-revolution backlash against LGBT people, escape the country to seek asylum in the Netherlands.
“When you’re listening to someone’s voice, to be physically present in their memories is so interesting,” explains Shogaolu. During the production, the characters would describe their feeling of difference as people of colour in majority-white spaces. And it was a feeling familiar to Shogaolu herself, as a black woman working in the male-dominated and white-majority world of tech.
VR provided an opportunity to do something spectacular, to allow an audience to sit within a scene and experience “what it’s like to feel different”.
Technology’s diversity problem is well-documented. Across the UK, women make up less than 20% of the tech workforce (some reports put this number as low as 11%), while at senior level women average between 5% and 15%. For black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers, the numbers are even lower. However, a recent survey of 70 US virtual reality companies suggests that within VR specifically, women take up a higher amount of leadership roles – 64%. However, as users of the technology, only 16% of women had used VR compared with 30% of men in the UK and US.
Catherine Allen, co-founder and CEO of Bristol-based Limina Immersive, is determined to address this imbalance. In 2014, while Allen was working at Touchpress, her team was awarded a Bafta for an iPad app they created with Disney. Allen decided to make the leap into VR in 2015 by producing two of the BBC’s first VR experiences.
“Making VR as an artist was such a joy, but the lack of diversity in audiences was something I couldn’t shake,” says Allen. “I was frustrated that the only people who could see my work were a really narrow group. Mainly young men who used their headset for gaming. What was the point of making VR content if the audience was this narrow?”
She co-founded Limina Immersive in 2016 with Chris Sizemore, the commissioner of her earlier BBC projects, to bring VR to broader audiences. The firm provides curation and consultancy, and has a dedicated VR theatre. “I know the VR industry is really trying to be inclusive. But there’s a way to go and we are fighting against the grain,” she says. “There are gender gaps already emerging, but it isn’t too late to fix things.”
Allen also launched the initiative, A Vision for Women and VR, which she describes as “a rallying cry to steer the industry in a direction that reflects society’s best self rather than its worst”.
But for Ashley Baccus-Clark, a US-based molecular biologist and multidisciplinary artist, the issue does not stop at audiences and workers. She points to a lack of diversity among those who fund VR, locking out minority voices.
Like Shogaolu, Baccus-Clark wanted to highlight the lived experience of women of colour. Her digital narrative, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF), was publicly released last year and selected for the Sundance film festival and Tribeca. It includes a VR component in which users are transported into the body of a black woman.
She wrote and produced NSAF in collaboration with Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal and Nitzan Bartov, as part of Hyphen-Labs, an all-female art, tech and design collective.
Baccus-Clark adds: “We made this piece because we didn’t see too many people who looked like us working in our fields. We created this platform to connect with other creators and make ourselves visible to other women, and women of colour, who want to use immersive storytelling to highlight their life experiences.”
VR lends itself well to art and entertainment, but it can also provide a crucial lifeline for those with medical needs. After suffering an accident that left her immobile for an extended period, Isabel Van De Keere founded Immersive Rehabin 2016. The firm creates VR programmes to help patients improve their recovery. Van De Keere, who has a background in mechanical engineering, says: “When I was going through rehab, it was often boring and isolating. I wanted to develop something to make the process different for people in the future.”
Using VR for rehabilitation makes perfect sense because of its immersive nature, according to Van De Keere. “A lot of those we work with lack strength or motor skills. Just being able to pick up something and move it is very frustrating for patients,” she says. “Physios today will just say: ‘Move your arms up and down 20 times.’ Which is very boring, but also limits recovery because your brain does not link your movements with an object. But in VR we can allow them to engage with virtual objects … it feels very real.”
Van De Keere says it can be hard to raise funds as a female entrepreneur, but she remains positive about VR’s future. “There are amazing women working in VR and we’re trying to make sure [the industry] evolves. It’s all about good conduct. We don’t want content being created that is offensive towards women. We really want it to become an inclusive community, where everybody is represented.”