Making a safe space to learn in the VR community
Intersectionality, education, and the VR/AR Collective
When I started out in virtual reality two years ago, I wasn’t sure what shape my work was going to take. Creating VR experiences was a guarantee — in 2015, I founded a VR studio for side projects with my friend Keith — but how was I going to contribute to the industry itself, or the local community in my hometown of Seattle? I went looking for spaces within the VR industry that fostered alternative voices, intent on helping however I could.
Almost all of the VR events and conferences I have attended have been majority white and majority male, and a lot of the games and experiences being made for VR are a reflection of that population. The multiplayer/social apps available for VR have also come with a variety of virtual harassment issues that have cropped up since the commercial release of the Vive and the Rift earlier this year. You can read about the negative, racist reactions to a unique VR experience called Project Syria. When you scratch beneath the surface of this shiny new industry, it becomes easy to see the impact of a lack of diverse voices participating in VR.
Lacking diversity is a very common refrain within all other areas of tech, not just in the content we create, but in the people we hire. The technical skills that working on VR requires is very similar to a lot of other areas in tech, most notably the video game industry, and subsequently harbors the same critical weakness: low hiring rates of PoC, women, LGTBQIA-identified people, and other underrepresented groups.
The virtual reality industry is still in early years, and it is already suffering the consequences of a lack of diverse voices. On our current trajectory, VR as an empathy machine remains out of reach. And because VR is so new, the majority of existing spaces reflect the people that built them, and reflect the culture and privilege of the people that built them. In the face of that fundamental lack of diversity, I found opportunity.
The VR/AR Collective was founded in April of 2016. Our primary goal is to normalize the presence and contributions of historically underrepresented groups in VR and AR. We are doing that by connecting, educating, and training those groups with a variety of social & educational events, ranging from workshops and create-athons (our version of hackathons), to informal social mixers and VR demo nights so local creators can show off their work.
The first couple of months after we started up were rough, but optimistic. There were very few people willing or able to help us organize, and a lot of big questions: What events will our members need in order to feel safe and welcome? What kind of support will they need from us to keep going after they get started? Will anyone care enough about what we’re doing to sponsor or donate to our efforts?
Even though few of the organizers had experience running events or leading a community group, our small (and amazing) team had a lot of faith in committing ourselves to doing good work for the sake of the VR community, trusting that opportunities to make a difference would reveal themselves in due time.
In June of 2016, we secured a partnership with Microsoft and Girls in Tech to run a Women’s VR/AR Create-athon. The event was free to attendees and reached capacity in less than a week, with a monster waitlist of over 130 additional women eager for a spot.
We regularly send out feedback surveys to keep a finger on the pulse of our community — here are some stats we gathered from the survey sent out to Create-athon participants:
- 66% had no previous experience with VR or AR whatsoever; another 31% said they had only a little bit of experience using the headsets
- Just 1 in 3 described themselves as a developer — another third called themselves designers, and the final third was split between a variety of different roles including project managers, artists, writers, etc
- Most requested resource before the event: tutorials to get familiar with the software they would be using to create their VR experiences
When we asked our participants about what they were looking to get out of attending the Create-athon, we got comments like these:
“I love video games and VR, my dream job would involve VR. I’m hoping to meet other women who are as enthusiastic about it as I am.”
“I’ve been interested in VR for awhile but only just got to experience it. I want to learn more and this seems like a really safe environment to do so!”
“I heard that women are trying to get on the ground floor of this new industry to secure a more balanced demographic in the future. Hoping to learn some skills/get started so I can be one of them.”
The day of the event, 100 women and 20 volunteers gathered for 12 hours of group project collaboration and a handful of educational lightning talks.
Our Women’s VR/AR Create-athon was, as far as I’m aware, the first event of its kind. Despite the hiccups — we had to borrow all of our equipment, Microsoft didn’t provide any HoloLenses, the HoloLens team had zero female spokespeople available to participate — we all worked hard, had a blast, and received some very positive feedback from attendees. (It was so successful, we’re actively planning on hosting a second Create-athon sometime in early 2017.)
Since then, our organization has gone on to host community events each month, with two more scheduled before the end of this year. Our organizer team has shifted and doubled in size, and membership has grown at a healthy pace: we are now over 900 members strong.
We have expanded our reach of mentors and educators, inviting folks to collaborate on future events with us traveling from Portland, San Francisco and Oakland. We are talking to organizations like HERE Seattle and Lambert House, because outreach beyond our own social circle is key to the long-term health of the VR industry and partnering with them will help us serve our long-term goals.
The conversations we foster between our organizers and the community have continued to shape our organization. Some members have challenged us to take on more diverse leadership, which we are actively working on. (If you are part of an underrepresented group, based in the Seattle area, and want to get involved, we want to hear from you.)
Our volunteers are enthusiastic about diversity, and we are grateful for every single one of them offering their free time to help us educate our community. Though none of them work for big companies like Oculus or Microsoft, many of them work professionally in VR at local startups and contribute tremendously to the vibrant Seattle VR scene.
On the surface, the present state of our community looks bright and full of hope, but it would be impossible to finish this letter without acknowledging the impact that the fallout of the recent U.S. election has had on all of us.
In light of the rise in racism, misogyny and hate speech that directly affects our members, the organizing team and I have decide to double down on our commitment to fostering VR education and contributions to the field from historically underrepresented groups. I can only assume that 2017 and beyond have tough challenges in store for all of us. Maintaining safe spaces, educating those who don’t have the benefit of privilege or access, and doing the work to make diverse voices heard is vital in a climate like this one.
In order to reinforce that we are an organization built by and for these groups, I am proud to announce our new code of conduct, which you can read in full here. We welcome comments and feedback from our community, or anyone else who wants to share their thoughts.
Starting now, we will be laser-focused on two very specific areas:
- Education and training in skills for creating experiences in VR/AR, including ongoing support.
- Outreach to other communities & companies in VR/AR, with a focus on helping them build safe spaces, hire diverse teams, and foster an inclusive environment.
This means cutting a significant amount of our just-socializing events in favor of putting that energy toward education and outreach. There are several other VR organizations in the Seattle area who host inclusive social events regularly, such as Seattle VR. We will be partnering with them and other groups to showcase work created by our community and provide them with a platform to be seen & heard.
The Collective’s organizing team will spend the rest of 2016 planning educational events, starting in December and continuing into next year. Here is an incomplete list of the workshops and events we have coming up in the near future:
- Using gestures to augment cognition in VR
- Intro to 360 video filming & editing
- Intro to web VR development
- Make your first mobile VR project
- The basics of interaction design in VR
- 2017 VR/AR Create-athon
In addition to these events, one of our long-term goals is to establish a VR computer lab with 15 stations where we can host classes, hold open office hours, and provide access to anyone who wants to work with VR hardware but can’t afford to do so on their own. A more comprehensive plan and budget for that project will be drafted by the end of 2016.
I’m grateful for my team and their relentless positivity, the support we receive from local VR companies who believe that they share the responsibility of inclusion, and everyone who attends our events. For me personally, the VR/AR Collective has been one of the few bright points of light in an otherwise difficult year. It’s time to be a catalyst for change, time to turn disappointment and uncertainty into action.
Fired up and ready to go,
Adrienne (and Emily)
For all the education and support that we’ve accomplished so far, and all of the work that we have yet to do, you can thank these wonderful people:
If you’d like to donate to our organization, you can contribute via our Meetup group here.
If you’d like to sponsor an event, partner with us, volunteer to teach a workshop, or help us make the VR computer lab a reality, please get in touch with us.