Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Emma Mankey Hidem of SunnysideVR
Embrace a love of learning –technology changes fast. To be in tech, you have to love learning in order to keep up. I am constantly researching, keeping an eye on tech news, and trying out new tools. And while my focus is in VR/AR/XR, I also keep an eye on things like AI, lidar, or any other tech that potentially overlaps now or in the future.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Emma Mankey Hidem.
Emma Mankey Hidem is an innovative storyteller and media expert with over a decade of experience, who started working with immersive and interactive media in 2013. She founded Sunnyside VR in 2015, and has since created unique experiential media for brands such as Mercedes Benz, Estee Lauder, Norwegian Cruise Lines, AARP and the ACLU. Emma has spoken about immersive media all over the country and she serves on the board of Women in Film & Video and DCXR.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in Minneapolis, MN. I have always been drawn to anything creative — as a kid I sang, danced, played piano, played violin, and was a theatre nerd. My grandfather was a photographer and I would spend time with him in his dark room, which led to me eventually taking up photography, too. When I was 14, I took a video production class at my school and that just really clicked for me. I had always enjoyed storytelling but writing never felt like the right medium for me. Video production on the other hand just felt right. I pretty much decided then and there that I was going to pursue a career in media so I ended up switching schools my junior year to attend the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a magnet arts high school in Minnesota where I specialized in media arts. From there I went on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and got my BFA in Film & Television Production. After graduating in 2007, I worked in NYC for a few years before moving to Washington, DC, where I have been for a decade. I was extremely fortunate to get to work with and learn from talented filmmakers like Academy Award-winner Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) and Emmy-nominee Joe Fab (Paper Clips). I came to VR by way of working at a company that does media for museums — for that job I was working on everything from films to touch screen games to RFID-triggered audioscapes and that is where I first learned to shoot 360° video. I think coming to VR from this interactive media angle also really helped me to think differently about it — to create an immersive experience that rewards the viewer almost regardless of where they look instead of trying to force or coax them to look at one specific section of the VR world where the action is happening.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“We live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the uneducated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except now it’s applied to our fellow citizens.” This is a quote from the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which is probably one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read and was a big inspiration for a virtual reality project I’m working on about political bias. The book is about how disconnected and divided we are as a society now and how that is impacting things like mental health crises, PTSD in soldiers, and the political polarization of the US. The thing that stuck with me most from the book was the idea that both liberalism and conservatism are natural and rooted in evolutionary biology: liberalism is rooted in the evolutionary idea that our ancestors were stronger together in terms of pooling resources and playing different roles; conservatism is rooted in the evolutionary idea of individual adaptability and that people not pulling their weight are a dangerous drain on the group. Junger argues that there is a need for both ideologies in a society and that it makes us stronger — that without both we cannot succeed. It is a very thought-provoking book and I highly recommend it.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I ended up in the XR field somewhat by chance. I had mostly worked in documentary/non-fiction media for the first several years of my career until I ended up at a company that makes media for museums. It was there that I learned to shoot 360° video. The client at the time was The College Football Hall of Fame and, in a situation that was a little trial-by-fire, I shot 360° video at 13 different college football games around the country for an exhibit called Virtual Stadiums. Headsets weren’t even out yet at the time so, when the museum first opened, the exhibit was on iPads. I filmed as the team ran out, pre-game traditions, the half-time show, and would usually try to get a touchdown from the sideline. It was a wild experience! Never in my life did I think I would be standing in the middle of a football stadium with 80,000 fans cheering, fireworks going off, and 300lb football players running past me. But the experience caused me to immediately fall in love with the 360° medium. I loved the challenge of making content that is interesting almost no matter where you look. It makes you think differently than film where you’re framing a shot and can control what the audience is looking at. I also loved being able to give people an experience that they would otherwise likely not have in life. Not many people get to be on the field during big games, after all. And with my background in documentary, I was intrigued by the social impact the technology could have.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
To be honest, I don’t think I could pick just one moment as the most interesting, which I know I am incredibly fortunate to be able to say. My job has taken me all over the country and even as far away as Nepal. I’ve taken a Sno-Cat up a mountain to film 360° sunrise shots at 14,000 ft. I got to see my first total eclipse in Oregon. I’ve flown in a small prop plane to a private island in The Bahamas. I spent two weeks in Nepal with kids trying to better their lives. I’ve been to indoor farms, skeet shooting, rodeos, rally car races, and windfarms under construction. I have literally flown over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter and ziplined in a tropical paradise… all for my job. The thing that I love most about this career is this variety of experience that I get to have and all the new things I get to learn, both about the changing field of XR but also about the subject matter of the media I create. So many of these experiences I never would have had if it were not for my career in XR and I am so grateful that my life took me down this path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The thing that working in virtual reality has taught me most is the importance of testing. When I founded Sunnyside VR, very few people were doing this. There wasn’t a lot of guidance or instruction available so mistakes were unavoidable. I had to learn by experimenting and testing things out. The first camera rig that I bought for my company was a rig of 7 GoPros — different from the camera I had used on The College Football Hall of Fame project — and I filmed my very first 360° shoot on that rig with the wrong aspect ratio on the GoPros. Luckily it was literally just a practice shoot anyway, but it really drove home the importance of testing. Whenever I shoot in a new situation or with new cameras, I try to test it first in a similar situation to what I’ll be shooting. For example, if I’ll be filming in a car, I would first do a test shoot in a similarly sized car to determine things like where are the best spots to film? Where are trouble spots where it will be difficult to stitch the footage? etc. Post-production for VR can also require testing/experimentation. Sometimes you might need to try one stitching software for one shot and a different software for another shot because the software is reading the footage slightly differently. There is a lot of trial and error, even still, in VR (and AR / XR), since the technology is always evolving.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been fortunate to have a number of amazing mentors but, since we’re talking VR specifically, I’ll call out Peter Gillespie, who was my direct supervisor for The College Football Hall of Fame project. I was unfortunately getting pushback from a sexist boss about being the person who would shoot the 360° footage at the games. Even though I was the one organizing the shoots and liaising with the university contacts, the boss wanted to send a male colleague who had less experience than I had. Peter advocated for me to be the one to do it and it was a relief not to have to fight for my role all by myself. His support was invaluable. After the project ended, Peter also encouraged me to start my own company that specialized in 360° video. Honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve had the guts to do it if he hadn’t seemed so confident that I would succeed.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have several passion projects that I am excited about, but the one that I think has the most potential to help people is one I alluded to earlier — a test/pilot VR experience to see if we can reduce bias across political and other cultural divisions in this country through a sort of virtual exchange program. The project is still in production — I am doing just a handful of 360° video “exchanges,” and I will have partners in academia to help me build out the platform and measure whether it actually works. If we can prove that it is an effective empathy builder, the plan would be to seek funding to do it at a large scale all over the country. We saw during the insurrection on January 6th just how dangerous the effects of political polarization can be. A reduction in political polarization could reduce partisan gridlock and allow our government to actually get things done. Reducing bias would also hopefully reduce hate crimes and the general vitriol that accompanies the “othering” of our fellow citizens.
I am also in post-production on my first feature-length documentary, Blue Ridge Barnum, about roadside artist and entertainer Mark Cline and I plan to have a supplemental VR experience so that people can experience his massive dinosaur and monster sculptures at scale. I think that will bring people a lot of joy, which isn’t overtly helping people but I think there’s no such thing as too much joy in the world.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
The things I am most excited about are volumetric filming, the ability to give the viewer agency, and the empathy-building component. Volumetric filming is where you capture real world objects or people in full photo-real 3D. 360° video is a very limited experience — you can only really look around from one specific point. Volumetric filming would give people the ability to walk around in and interact with virtual worlds that are photoreal places rather than 3D animations, eliminating the uncanny valley problem.
Giving the viewer agency excites me because of my background in interactive media — I love to think of ways that we can create media that isn’t just passive for the viewer. VR is automatically less passive because you can look around and you’re not being controlled by a filmmaker in terms of what you see. But can we give them choices to make to take some ownership of their experience? Can we let them make decisions that influence the story, even? I try to incorporate interactivity into my projects as much as possible and that is going to get better and better as the technology advances. I love the viewer’s agency in AR, as well — people engage with content that supplements the real world and creates experiences they’ve never had before.
The empathy-building component of VR excites me because of my background in documentary. VR is the closest you can get to walking in someone else’s shoes without traveling directly to them. A lot of interesting studies have already come out showing that virtual reality causes major leaps in empathy. A brain imaging study at Peking University particularly demonstrated VR’s ability to directly impact the neural substrates in the brain associated with pain and empathy. This is huge for increasing impact and action toward important causes and has been a big boon in fundraising and brand awareness to nonprofits who have used VR.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
As with anything connected to the internet, there is danger too. Already there have been reports of women being sexually harassed in VR experiences. The solution to that so far seems to be not allowing avatars to touch other avatars — creating a sort of physical bubble — but that doesn’t necessarily stop verbal harassment. And people can hide behind the anonymity of avatars, which gives them the freedom to troll, harass, bully, and engage in other toxic behaviors. And then on the AR side of things, you have people getting distracted. We saw this with Pokemon Go: people walking out into traffic or playing it when driving. Humans are not always the best at prioritizing safety over fun, so AR experience designers will have to try to mitigate the likelihood of people injuring themselves by adjusting game mechanics and putting warnings in the experience, which is what Pokemon Go did.
I do want to address a concern I hear pretty often that I actually don’t think is much of a concern: a lot of people say to me “some people are just going to live in the VR world and abandon the real world altogether,” and my response to this is that people have used media to escape the real world since the printing press existed, if not before — whether it be holing up with books, or binge-watching tv and movies, etc, The people who are trying to escape real life will find a way. I don’t think VR is going to be any worse than any other medium at causing people to avoid the real world.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
VR and AR are incredibly powerful tools for business. I’ll start with VR since that’s where more of my focus lies: The experiential aspect and the empathy-building aspect makes it a perfect marketing tool –when the viewer feels like they are really immersed in that world, the experience is more memorable and impactful. In studies, viewers were better able to recall the brands featured in VR experiences than in traditional video or other forms of marketing. Not every brand needs experiential marketing but it’s great for many industries like travel, sports, entertainment, and social impact to name a few. I have even seen awesome VR experiences for the agriculture or energy industries. There are a lot of creative ways to use VR in marketing, even if your product is not particularly experiential.
VR and AR are also both amazing tools for training — you can put a VR headset on a firefighter and train them in the most dangerous of situations while they are completely safe. People can do more “reps” of training on things like heavy machinery or football plays, reducing wear and tear on the equipment or physical impact on the body. You can even train people on soft skills like sales or public speaking, where they can practice in front of “a group of people” over and over until they get comfortable with it.
AR can be used to help people troubleshoot machinery or technology problems — you could have a whole 3D instruction manual, making it faster to diagnose and fix issues. Doctors are using AR so that they don’t have to look away from the patient at a monitor during surgery or using VR to get a detailed 3D view of complicated tumors prior to surgery. Associations are using VR and AR to educate their members on issues their industry is facing. There are just a myriad of really exciting uses for XR in business and we’ll discover more and more as the technology advances.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Immersive technology is a big win for people who might not be able to leave their home easily — maybe it’s a senior who isn’t very mobile anymore but can now travel the world in VR. It has shown to decrease feelings of isolation in the elderly. Burn victims can play an icy VR game and it reduces their pain by keeping them distracted and presenting them with images related to cold. Students can get hands on in ways they couldn’t in real life with both AR or VR via things like 3D visualizations of molecules or historical places. They could take virtual field trips to other countries or even to Mars. Suddenly the whole universe is at our fingertips, and whether we are using that to increase knowledge or just to have fun, the technology is truly incredible and has already improved many lives in countless ways.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Most definitely not. Obviously, as a woman in STEM, I have first-hand experiences of sexism I have faced but what was really eye-opening was when I produced a documentary on women in STEM in 2019. It was honestly almost traumatic to hear how bad it can be. Women are routinely told they don’t belong in STEM. They are routinely the only woman in the room or one of a few. They get discriminated against, sexually harassed or assaulted, and often have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. Their names are put last on papers where they were the lead or occasionally left out entirely.
Unfortunately, we need a major societal shift for change to really happen because things that contribute to a lack of women in STEM start when children are very young — you see it in the media and in children’s toys and all these subtle messages get absorbed so young girls aren’t developing an interest in STEM because they’re basically being told it’s not for them. Practically all girl toys are pink and revolve around fashion and make-up. Meanwhile boys get dinosaurs and trucks and astronauts. I remember seeing one example of children’s sleeping bags where the boy’s was space-themed and the girl’s was make up themed and I was so grossed out by that. First of all, little girls do not need to be encouraged to wear make-up. Secondly, it tells girls from a very young age that they are primarily valued for their appearance. Even the compliments many people give and the language they use with kids contributes — girls are called pretty and well-behaved while boys are strong or smart. Boys are encouraged to be loud and rambunctious and explore. Girls are encouraged to sit quietly and play with dolls or literally to pretend to do chores as their play time. What is that?! Girls need to be encouraged to take an interest in STEM from a young age and the media and the toy makers need to stop gendering everything so grotesquely. And then these young ladies need support as they continue to pursue it, which is also lacking in the current STEM landscape. They need to be treated with respect like their male colleagues and not be told women don’t belong in STEM. They need access to the same resources that their male colleagues have. They need to not be passed over for important projects or promotions. They need their contributions sufficiently acknowledged and celebrated like men’s.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
VR, AR, MR is so new I’m not sure there are a lot of myths to dispel. I think that the tech has progressed slower than we in the industry would like and slower than a lot of original predictions or promises that were made, particularly for AR. We still have a long way to go before we get to ubiquitous use of these tools. And in terms of working in the industry, I guess I would just include that, as cool as the tech is, it can also be like any other job in that it’s not always going to be fun or rewarding. You are still going to have a lot of tedious stuff to do like testing and re-testing. And if you are a woman it’s going to be harder for you, but I don’t think there is a myth saying otherwise. You are going to face a lot of sexism and people are going to try to stand in your way. It may be a lonely road at times — I work at the crux of media and tech, and both are male-dominated fields so I am frequently the only woman in the room, which can feel isolating sometimes.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be adaptable — As we learned in 2020, major change can happen in any area of life very suddenly. When the lockdown hit and my client work was put on hold, I had to pivot. Since my customers were businesses and businesses were shutting down, I had to create a product I could make from home with my skillset that would fill a need for consumers. In talking to people at the beginning of the lockdown I was hearing 3 major complaints: People were bored, they wanted more human interaction, and dating was now impossible. So, with those things in mind, and I created The Game Show of Love, an interactive dating game show with audience participation. I never would’ve imagined that I would create much less host a dating show but this pivot helped me get through the crisis and, in addition to the income from the show, it led to a new stream of consulting income as a Zoom expert, helping organizations bring their events online.
- Embrace a love of learning –technology changes fast. To be in tech, you have to love learning in order to keep up. I am constantly researching, keeping an eye on tech news, and trying out new tools. And while my focus is in VR/AR/XR, I also keep an eye on things like AI, lidar, or any other tech that potentially overlaps now or in the future.
- Find your cheerleaders, mentors, and advocates — entrepreneurship is hard and can feel solitary. Sometimes you will want to give up. I certainly have. But I have people in my life who believe in me and my work, and their faith in me helped me get through the tough times and the self-doubt. Sometimes all you need are a few uplifting words, but sometimes you might need guidance or someone to fight for something on your behalf. Build a solid support system and don’t be afraid to admit to them when you are struggling.
- Don’t give it your all — That might sound counter to most leadership advice but operating at 100% is not sustainable. Sure, you will have to work hard but working too hard for too long just leads to burnout. Chris Winfield of Super Connector Media has a great rule he calls “The 51% Rule” — you just need to want to do something a little bit more than you don’t want to do it. Expecting yourself to operate at 100% for more than short bursts of time is self-sabotaging.
- Learn to love rejection — to be an entrepreneur, you must learn to love the word “no.” You will hear it a lot. But you can’t get a yes if you’re not putting yourself or your business out there. So think of every no as a moment that brings you closer to a future yes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I will have to return to my project about reducing political and other cultural biases here in the US via VR. The polarization in this country has gotten out of control. People don’t talk to or interact with people whose viewpoints are different from them anymore and, as we saw on January 6th, that can be incredibly dangerous. If I can use VR to bring people together, to combat the many forces pulling us apart, I think that could create massive amounts of positive change. Sometimes it seems like each side barely sees the other as human anymore and our democracy will not survive if that continues.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I am a huge admirer of Senator Elizabeth Warren. She is incredibly smart and compassionate. She finds real, workable solutions to major problems. And she knows what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field and to have faced major challenges accordingly. Every time she speaks, I feel inspired and motivated. It would be such an honor to get to have a meal with her.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!