Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Sep. 16th
Continuing our series of interviews with the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation, which presents the second annual Proto Awards next week.
Don’t underestimate the social media managers of the world.
That’s a lesson that every reporter on the tech beat learns quickly. It’s easy to get distracted by the personalities of flashy developers and “rock star” CEOs, but the social media folks know where the bodies are buried. Which beefs are real and which are performance art pieces for the Twitteratti.
It’s way too easy to dismiss people with “Social Media” in their title, and that would be a grievous error. The job means seeing and hearing everything, and with that access comes perspective.
Jessica Ward is one of the founders of The Virtual Reality Foundation, which she characterizes as coming with the territory of helping the VRLA Expo off the ground. Her relationship with the event started at the first, fateful, meetup at Digital Domain in April of last year.
“It was a very small group,” said Ward, “just about a hundred people. I’d been following VR for a long time and I used to work for a company that manufactured 3D glasses, with active and passive and various technology for 3D cinema systems. So I’d been following 3D cinema and people who’d been starting to use our glasses for things other than cinema.”
Those hardware hackers led her down the VR rabbit hole.
“Through that I followed the Oculus Kickstarter and it all kind of hit at the same moment. I went to that event and it was amazing, and I said to Cosmo I want to help you grow this. I’m really into it too. I see the possibilities of it.“
Help grow it she did. From the stage of Digital Domain the group moved to an event at the Ace Hotel—the Downtown LA hotspot—during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2014.
“There weren’t a lot of VR people exhibiting at E3  because of the exorbitant prices of booths there and we wanted people who were already making VR games to have a place to show them.”
Our conversation circled back around to that theme—access—more than once. As Ward observed, there are a fair number of technology focused events in LA but the vast majority are prohibitively expensive. For her one of the good things that the VRLA Expo manages to do is keep ticket prices low and thus attract a wider group that includes both dedicated enthusiasts and the curious.
“I do think our events are one of the most diverse I’ve ever seen now amongst ethnicities, gender, age,” said Ward in the press room above the show floor. “Literally downstairs there’s age 5 to 85.”
(One of my favorite moments later was watching two women in their 60’s banter with a rock band that was demoing a VR music video they had brought to the show. It was pretty much the last thing I expected to see at a tech show.)
The opportunities that VRLA affords the public are amplified in those that being involved with the event have offered Ward herself.
“I work for a very cool European company that is getting their foothold into VR. If anyone wants to know more they can contact me personally. I’ll tell you all about it.
“Through VRLA I’ve been able to meet and develop relationships with everyone in LA in the space. Whether it’s live action VR or someone developing on Unity or Unreal. It’s just a plethora of people and I really feel like LA is the home base for VR. Because we have all the creative people who really care about content.”
Ward’s observations of LA’s role in the emerging VR industry are echoed just about everywhere I turn. Of course, I’m turning within the borders of Los Angeles, but there’s more to it than just regional pride. Between the strong roots of the film industry and the hot bed of game development that is the University of Southern California the LA region is the perfect petri dish for bringing forth a new medium.
“That’s exactly what’s happening,” said Ward, “game-making and filmmaking and all these different disciplines are combining and everyone needs to learn each others ways to tell stories.”
For Ward it’s the storytelling possibilities that matter most.
“That’s what’s really exciting for me. My favorite thing in VR is the idea of being in a story and mixing live action with CG so that things look real enough. You could be in real life, but have that control over it.”
Ward’s dreams of VR may not be unique, but her position within The VRF is. She’s the only woman amongst the founders. On the one hand it’s great to see someone other than a guy on the board of directors of something tech-focused. On the other it’s a reminder that this is a field that still attracts guys like moths to a flame.
“I’d say definitely our first events were 99% men, cause that’s still the tech industry; and especially the gaming industry as a whole. They’re really the ones driving VR adoption. But I’ve noticed a lot of that changing, and I think that VR might be one of the mediums of technology that pushes beyond the male dominated aspects.”
For Ward that comes back to her prime VR passion.
“It’s because there’s so many different types of stories to tell. People have called it the empathy machine, and no one wants to stereotype but traditionally women can tell empathic stories more and like to highlight that.”
Again it’s a matter of access. Which is another way that the emerging VR development community reflects earlier tech revolutions.
“I think that the more that the barrier to entry goes down more people of all backgrounds can be a part of it. So it’s not traditionally owned and dominated by the dominant culture.”
That’s a sentiment that reflects the punk rock, reality hacker ethos that dreamed up the VR future in the 90’s, only to watch that vision of the Internet get bogged down the Web 2.0 commercial culture. Given who owns the hardware platforms there’s no guarantee that the VR revolution won’t be prone to all the same issues that the last twenty years of tech have been prone to, but the breadth of voices that are involved at the start of this new cycle make the case that this time we’ve got a shot at that VR fever dream.
It might be a tiny shot, but we’ve got to take it.
Tomorrow in the series: John Root.