A new generation of female artists is making VR the most diverse corner of the male-dominated tech space.
I'm in a suburban basement, much like the ones I spent time in as a kid — unfinished, dusty, full of random forgotten belongings. To my right is a velveteen stuffed bunny, next to my feet is a convertible backpack-suitcase in dirty lime green. On top of a stack of magazines is an issue of Time, the cover a headline about how war is coming soon. I don’t catch the date, but I don’t have time to look closer anyway — the giant is approaching.
A family of white American parents and their child are debating whether they should have evacuated. The little girl doesn’t know what is going on, but the threat is visible in the parents’ eye contact, in their uncertain glances. They should have gotten out sooner, but now it’s definitely too late. Moments later, the ceiling comes down over the trio, and I jolt back to reality, grasping for nothing in the air. Headset off, I emerge into the New Museum’s incubator on the Lower East Side: There are computers and people working all around me, and Milica Zec is standing to my left, waiting to hear my thoughts on her first virtual-reality film.
Giant is not about a real giant, but the experience of living in a war zone, as Zec did during her childhood in Serbia. Written by American Lizzie Donahue, the film imagines what hiding from war might look like for three American characters. It’s a moving piece of work, able to make headlines about far-off places feel visceral, but Zec’s contribution to the exploding field of virtual reality is significant for other reasons, too: She’s just one member of a wave of female artists, musicians, activists, and filmmakers seeking to make virtual reality the most woman-friendly space in the tech world.
Virtual reality is still in its infancy, but is expected to be a $150 billion industry by 2020. And because the technology is so new, and so different from anything else happening in Silicon Valley, female creators have gotten a rare opportunity to start from a level playing field. Virtual reality is so new that it has “no formalized industry, and therefore no industry hierarchy, making it particularly welcoming to outsiders and newcomers,” explains Julia Kaganskiy, director of the New Museum’s New Inc. incubator, where Zec is a fellow. “Effectively everyone is a newcomer, and there are virtually no insiders.”
GIF: Courtesy of Milica Zec
There are women in VR panels, conferences, support groups, and mentor relationships. Four of the 11 virtual-reality projects in the New York Film Festival’s Convergence division, which focuses on VR and immersive storytelling, were created by women, and Convergence programmer Matt Bolish says in the five years of the program, “women have not only been at the forefront as creators, but as producers, writers, and financiers."
And at the New Frontier VR exhibition at Sundance this past January — the program’s tenth anniversary — a record 13 of the 32 lead artists on VR projects were women. “This is really a powerful medium and we have to make sure we do better this time,” says Kamal Sinclair, who directs the New Frontier Labs program. “We saw how women dropped out of computer science in the early ’80s. They were there in the beginning. How do we make sure we learn from those missteps?”
Of course, most of the tech world’s VR obsession centers on the potential for advancements in gaming and porn. At the Tokyo Game Show in September, men were asked to stop groping a mannequin transformed by goggles into an anime character. When Mark Zuckerberg announced the purchase of Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, the first thing he said he intended to do with it is make better games. The second was enhancing the experience of “enjoying a courtside seat at a game.” Meanwhile, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey (whose estimated net worth is $700 million) has become the latest tech-world bad boy by bankrolling alt-right trolls to make offensive anti-Clinton memes.
But while the money is still in sex and games created by the same old tech bros, a diverse set of female creators have been pushing the boundaries of what VR can be. The options are so unlimited (after all, you can literally create an entire new world) that there’s a thrill in seeing what people do with it: Through VR, you can experience sexual assault through the eyes of a predator and a victim; engage with a 3-D space crafted from exuberant, abstract brushstrokes; feel Björk’s heartbreak in 360 degrees on a gray beach in Iceland; learn how to negotiate for a raise; experience police brutality firsthand; live through wartime in an unfinished basement. In creating a virtual-reality piece about the threat of war, Zec used the medium to communicate human empathy, compassion, and fear.
The subject of empathy comes up a lot when discussing the possibilities and the limits of virtual reality: the possibility of using a digital world to communicate an experience that’s foreign to the viewer, the limits of how authentic that experience can actually be. It is true that virtual reality, more than any other medium before it, is provocatively immersive. If the real world refuses to listen to women, artists are saying, they’ll build a new virtual world that will. “When you're shut out of a system or you feel like you don't have a fair play, the most powerful thing you can do is create options and new avenues for yourself,” says Shari Frilot, New Frontier’s chief curator. Using VR as a way to communicate the female experience, or experiences that represent a wider worldview, provides a subversive tweaking of the male-dominated tech space, but also the larger male-dominated society.
Tech has always been disproportionately the domain of the young, white, well-off, and male. Just consider the dozens of fantasy-football apps in contrast to the fact that until very recently, there was no reliable period tracker. When I took part in an immersive virtual-reality experience at Madame Tussauds connected to the premiere of the new all-female Ghostbusters, the avatars in the experience were — confoundingly — male. But “the others” in VR are many, and if the industry actively seeks to foster their contributions, it could achieve the rarest of tech feats: true diversity. “We're just beginning to craft the experience of VR — building worlds and defining how to interact or communicate — using an immersive medium,” says Lindsay Metcalfe, the design manager for Google VR. “As women in VR, we have a responsibility to define the culture and to design for inclusivity and diversity from the start.”
Here are a small handful of the women pushing VR forward.
Björk, the Musician
GIF: Courtesy of Björk
Icelandic songwriter Björk is no stranger to new technologies: She uses 3-D-printed masks on tour, she developed an app out of her album Biophilia, and she picked instruments for Vespertine whose sound quality would not degrade when compressed into a small MP3 file. So after releasing her latest album, Vulnicura, in 2015, she decided to build it into a VR experience.
“When I realized I had my only album with a chronological narrative, I felt I had music stubborn enough to keep a tech experimentation down,” she says. “Since it had an ancient structure — the Greek tragedy — it would benefit from a 2016 kind of craft, kind of an opera for the 21st century.” Björk is in the process of releasing VR videos for every song on the record, with the plan to finish the project by the end of this year, the first of which was “Stonemilker.”
“I’m making these videos for future archives,” she says. “So that people with masks will be able to watch and listen to all of Vulnicura in one go in VR.” Until everyone has their own headsets, Björk is staging a traveling digital exhibition — the VR equivalent of a concert — at stops around the world.
As an artist who has found herself working in every possible format since the beginning of her career (“I’m very satisfied with the VHS stuff I did in the ’90s,” she says), VR was a logical next step. “The intimacy and the total immersion in sound and visuals is ideal for music. It’s very impulsive and involves full penetration,” she says. “It’s something musicians have always dreamt of, either at concerts or with the album format. We are living in the 21st century so it is only fitting that we use the same tools we text, watch videos, send loved ones emails on.”
Nonny de la Peña, the Godmother
“My big concern is that if the whole thing’s a bust, I’m going to end up like the godmother of CD-ROM,” Nonny de la Peña, a former Newsweek correspondent, CEO of the Emblematic Group, and documentary filmmaker, told me over the phone from England (she had been invited to lunch with Prince William, rendering her fear a little unlikely). “There’s too much money and energy and resources that have been brought to bear in the field for that to happen.”
De la Peña was famously labeled the godmother of VR by tech blog Engadget after her VR experience, Hunger in Los Angeles, premiered at Sundance in 2012. It was one of the first forays into using VR as a tool for empathy: de la Peña wanted to show what it was like to stand in line at a food bank in L.A. “People thought I was nuts, recording audio at food banks,” she says. “We showed up at Sundance with these two duct-taped pairs of goggles.”
One of the interns who helped her work on the piece was Palmer Luckey, who would go on to found Oculus VR. Hunger set the standard for what VR artists can achieve, inspiring filmmakers like Milica Zec and many others. “It’s going to be your cell phone in your pocket at some point,” de la Peña says. “Think about what happened with the car phone, to what happened with the mobile phone. You’ll see that your mobile phone and your virtual-reality device will merge.”
Angie Smets, the Gamer
GIF: Courtesy of Angie Smets
One of the biggest developments in VR history will happen on October 13, when Sony PlayStation releases its highly anticipated VR gaming headsets. The $399 PlayStation device will be the first consumer headset that users can hook up to their existing system — a huge difference from Oculus Rift, which costs users at least $1,600.
Angie Smets, the executive producer for Sony’s game studio Guerrilla Games, learned to love gaming at a young age. “I come from a family where technology was the norm, my dad was always showing me how to build stuff and always experimenting with stuff. My mom was really into gaming, so I have these great memories of very rainy Sunday afternoons where me, my mom, and my sister would play Pac-Man together,” she says over the phone from Amsterdam, where she and several other members of the Guerrilla Games team are based.
“When we make games, it’s really important that interactions are fun and meaningful and that they all come with immersion, that feeling of being in a different world,” she says of the team’s process in developing games for the new PlayStation VR. “It’s a virtual world, so there are no real consequences.” This, she says, is why there are more women game developers than ever before. “I think you need to want to explore new technologies and want to explore new ways of human interaction,” she says. “You need open-mindedness. It’s not that you’re trying to sell me a story — you’re trying to sell me on a different world.”
Rose Troche, the Filmmaker
“How are we faulty witnesses?” is the question at the heart of Rose Troche’s work in virtual reality. Together with digital-effects expert Morris May, Troche, a writer and producer for The L Word, created Perspective, a series that shows two views of the same story. The first chapter in the series explores a sexual assault from the perpetrator’s and the victim’s points of views. Experiencing death, murder, assault, or pain through the eyes of a person present, she says, is far more powerful than you might get in a Michael Bay movie.
“The Food Network is so popular because it’s background, and we’re all very used to background noise,” she says. “The challenge now is that you have to try to draw people in. I have your whole head, your whole brain, your whole dome.” That gives an immense power to filmmakers who enter the virtual-reality world. “I knew when I was making the Perspective piece that it was going to be familiar territory for many many women,” she says. “There’s something in us wanting more, wanting to actually feel what’s going on.”
Troche has always focused on telling stories through queer eyes, and she was immediately excited about virtual reality as a rare opportunity for creators to start from a level playing field. “There hasn’t been a moment where women can jump in and be experts at the same time that men are,” she says. “I get so excited about this moment in history because things are not really monetized, we’re doing it for the love of doing it. It is fantastically special.”
Janicza Bravo, the Activist
Photograph: Courtesy of Janicza Bravo
When Janicza Bravo was first asked to make a VR project, she initially said no. “When we were discussing it, it was all presented very technically,” she says. “I come from theater, so I’m really into people and being in rooms with people and humans and talking. Everything I had processed about VR in my initial introduction to it was so cold and so distant and so technical.”
But she had a change of heart once she thought about how rare it is to get an opportunity to make something for the sake of making something in a brand-new medium (especially with generous funding behind it). When VR studio WEVR asked her again, she said yes, creating Hard World for Small Things, a live-action film about police brutality.
Bravo had been thinking about a cousin who was asphyxiated by police in Brooklyn in 1999 when she decided to make the film. “Just because of my skin, I could lead a full life, end up dead one day, and who I was before that moment would just disappear. There would be three paragraphs about how where I ended up was my fault,” she says. While watching Hard World for Small Things, Bravo says, “you’re being forced into a conversation that you’re having with yourself about race politics.”
The film takes place in the backseat of a car driving through a neighborhood in Los Angeles that culminates in a violent encounter with police. “He’s going to die at the end, but the idea was that when it was over, you had a sense of where he came from and what he wanted,” Bravo says. “It wasn’t his fault that he died.”
Bravo says VR is a lot more like theater than she initially believed. “I think that what VR can do is actually engage the audience, your senses,” she says. The potential is what excites her most: “The technology is already better now from when I made it.” Now, she says, she has “something new brewing for the future.”
Kamal Sinclair, the Incubator, and Shari Frilot, the Curator
Just like films, VR experiences can’t get made without funding from people willing to take a risk. “There’s still a lot of skeptics, and I think that’s healthy,” says Kamal Sinclair, who directs Sundance’s New Frontier Labs. “That’s why we think it’s important to have diversity of the people interrogating it by making work.” Sinclair has made it part of her mission to ensure “the other” gets heard. “In terms of women in VR, it’s both technology and film, so we already know it’s male-heavy,” she says.
Making New Frontier, which explores new technologies in film, a place for diverse voices was important to curator Shari Frilot from the start. When she brought de la Peña’s Hunger to Sundance in 2012, she couldn’t believe the reaction. “It was kind of astonishing,” she says. “People lined up. They didn't complain. One by one, they were dropping to their knees. It became the talk of that year. It was really amazing.”
Sinclair calls VR a “gateway medium” because experiencing it for the first time generally stokes people’s enthusiasm to do more with it. But that comes with challenges. “Right now, I think a major issue is who are we investing in? We do need to be conscious of that.” Sinclair lamented a virtual-reality panel at the Oculus Connect conference, where the majority of the participants were men. “We’re talking about a shift as transformative as the iPhone was to our culture,” she says. “That is why it’s so critical that women not be missing.”
Frilot is optimistic that VR will continue to be welcoming to women. “I didn't mind that VR was different because I’m different. Different speaks to me,” she says. “Women are just organically a part of this. Women always take risks.”
Maureen Fan, the Animator
GIF: Courtesy of Maureen Fan
For her undergraduate degree at Stanford, Maureen Fan designed her own triple major: computer science, art, and psychology. “I’ve wanted to do animation my entire life. I designed my major specifically to do animation,” she says. After college, Fan worked at eBay as a user-interface designer, but on nights and weekends, she kept experimenting with her first love. She missed deadlines to apply to art school and went to Harvard Business School instead, figuring the experience could only help her in the future.
After working as vice-president of games at Zynga — where she oversaw the development of the wildly popular Facebook game Farmville — and working as a production intern on Toy Story 3, she decided to take a leap into doing animation full-time. When Fan put on a VR headset for the first time, the medium spoke to her immediately, just as animation had. “Storytelling is all about getting you to feel some type of emotion,” she says. “A lot of people believed Mickey Mouse was real, just standing there on a flat screen. Now imagine if Mickey Mouse is standing next to you, and talking to you, acknowledging you.”
Last year, she decided to marry her two loves by launching Baobab Studios, a VR animation studio that premiered its first short film earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Invasion! follows the life of a bunny encountering an alien invasion, and it was hugely popular with both kids and adults, creating four-hour wait times to see the four-minute movie at Comic Con. Now Fan hopes to encourage more women to join the industry. “The fact that we’re pointing this out early on actually gives me hope that the industry can develop in a different way.”
Kathleen Lingo, the Editor
The New York Times’ decision to send more than a million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers was celebrated as virtual reality’s mainstream debut. The cardboard headsets cost just $15 and are used in conjunction with mostly free apps. This was a huge moment for the democratizing of the expensive industry.
Kathleen Lingo is the commissioning editor for the Times’ op-doc section, which is home to some of its virtual-reality content. “The storytelling techniques that we’re so used to using in film are not applicable in virtual reality. The rules are different from a technical point of view,” says Lingo, a former television producer. “That’s where the groundbreaking creative process is happening. In this new physical space, how can you create a story that people will respond to?”
The Times has now published VR stories about a hajj to Mecca, noteworthy Olympic moments, and a Cannes Lions award-winning documentary called The Displaced, which followed people driven from their homes by war. “If you’re trying to tell a story, make a movie in VR,” Lingo says. “If there’s a news event, tell it in VR. Like the Paris vigil, that was very immediate. Having the experience of physically being somewhere is totally revolutionary. It’s definitely not a full-blown story, but VR should still be available to everyone.” The ability to experiment is her favorite part of her job: “There isn’t an established old guard that you have to fight against,” she says. “You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”
Rachel Rossin, the Visual Artist
GIF: Courtesy of Rachel Rossin
Rachel Rossin’s Brooklyn studio exists in the physical world, but also as a fully immersive VR experience. Her debut as a virtual-reality painter came with her installation Lossy, in which viewers put on a Rift headset and walk through a three-dimensional space Rossin built by scanning parts of her paintings. Upon taking off the mask, the viewer is confronted with Rossin’s IRL paintings, which serve as a gentle landing back into the real world.
Rossin, now a fellow at the New Museum incubator alongside Milica Zec, was interested in both art and computers from the time she was a kid. “When I was really young, I started programming and hacking video games and putting computers together. I used a boy’s avatar and name to avoid getting hassled,” she says. “I couldn’t find girls into the same things on the internet and I found that if I didn’t use a boy’s identity, I’d get a lot of pictures of grown-ups’ penises.” She began experimenting with combining programming and visual art in college, and she found it took a lot of trial and error to get the exact blend she wanted.
“I remember seeing those big million-dollar systems at the mall, but they were just theme-park rides,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, fuck yeah, let’s do this.’ But it obviously wasn't attainable at the time. Smartphone technology is the reason we have VR today.”
One of Rossin’s upcoming projects allows the viewer to move time forward with space. As the viewer walks through a room, an explosion erupts, and pieces of the room start to move around. The participant must continue walking forward to see the explosion to its end, thus time moving forward as she walks. “It’s a little bit of an arms race because there’s not really anything in canon,” Rossin says about the VR landscape. “That’s super interesting and really exciting. We spend so much time on screens and there’s this idea that they are so separate. But we’re dealing with a gradient of virtual reality already. The only difference now is that computers aren’t windows, they’re spaces.”