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Women Push the Envelope in Virtual Reality

A journalist, an industrialist, and a futurist are among the women blazing trails in the expanding fields of virtual and augmented realities.

While working on her doctoral dissertation in 2004, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Ph.D., a leading researcher and pioneer in virtual reality (VR), made a startling discovery. Dr. Morie had decided to survey the first 100 artistic VR experiences ever produced and to include them as a centerpiece of her research. Then, she noticed something unexpected: In 65 percent of the cases, women either had led the projects or had done most of the work.

“That was a big surprise,” she explained, “because most people think there were no women in VR in the early days. There were a lot, and many of us stayed with it. Women always have been available, and we have pushed the envelope in ways that have really advanced the field.”

Dr. Morie is right. Over the past 30 years, women have made major contributions, helping to advance VR technology, expand its potential uses, and speed up its adoption by industry. Yet women rarely receive public recognition for their work.

women in vr
With the Microsoft HoloLens headset, two architects can collaborate in real time on a design model while they review the proposed building’s underlying structures and systems superimposed, through AR, on the model. They also can review specific design features/issues, remotely, with a third-party content expert also outfitted with a HoloLens – and visible to all.

The nonprofit group Women in Virtual Reality (WIVR) was created, in part, to address this problem. On its website,, the group describes itself as a “networking and advocacy organization for women” with two key missions: increase the visibility of women in VR and attract more women to the field.

The WIVR website provides evidence of the deep involvement and wide-ranging roles women fill in the VR field. Its Directory of Experts, culled from the ranks of its own members, highlights nearly 100 women, more than two dozen of whom are VR studio founders, CEOs, and executives. The rest include: content developers and producers; game developers; professional association founders and leaders; writers, researchers, and VR evangelists; digital artists and designers; virtual-world builders and managers; VR consultants, professors, and much more.

What’s behind women’s lack of visibility? It could be that, until recently, women haven’t been active in the male-dominated gaming industry, where most media attention has been focused. All eyes have been on venture capital firms and their repeated, failed attempts to find and back the next VR game destined to become VR’s first killer app.

But VR’s killer app, if it exists, has remained stubbornly elusive. In March 2018, TechCrunch contributor Sibjeet Mahapatra summed up the situation nicely: “To date, no killer app has extended the promise of VR from a novelty to a sticky experience or utility that reaches beyond enthusiasts to resonate with the consumer center of mass.”

Dr. Morie believes that even if a VR killer app might be lurking out there somewhere, now is not the time to pursue it, because VR simply isn’t ready. “VR is a moving target,” she explained. “If you put in a whole VR system today, in two years you’re going to have to update the computers, the headsets, the tracking system, because every year we are learning more, and every year we’re getting better. Having to reset your entire tool structure every couple of years is not conducive to commercialization.”

While we can’t correct 30 years of media neglect and indifference in a single story, we’d like to make a start. In the pages that follow, SWE will introduce you to three remarkable and passionate women, all of whom have contributed greatly to advancing the fields of VR and AR. Their stories reveal a surprising openness to women’s participation, even if it isn’t celebrated in a big way. We hope their stories will shed light on factors that have drawn each of them to work in cyberspace.

The Journalist: Nonny De La Peña

Nonny de la Peña may be one of the most famous women working in VR today. The founder and CEO of the Emblematic Group, a Santa Monica, California-based VR content developer, de la Peña came to VR in 2006 with established media credentials. An award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist, she has applied those skills — and her considerable knowledge of VR technology — to produce a growing body of outstanding, award-winning work, including several recent joint projects with PBS programs NOVA and FRONTLINE.

Her VR documentary film “Hunger in L.A.,” which debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is recognized as the first example of immersive journalism, a form of VR reporting that she is credited with inventing and naming. The six minute film combines live, on-the-scene audio with 3D, computer-generated image (CGI) animation to tell the story of a man who collapsed into a diabetic coma while waiting in line for food at a Los Angeles food bank. The incident occurred during the worst days of “The Great Recession.”

“Hunger in L.A.” features two signature elements of de la Peña’s VR work. The people, objects, and spaces portrayed in the film are volumetric, meaning they exhibit full physical, spatial characteristics and — with the makeshift headset she designed and assembled for the occasion — viewers could not only enter the story space but also get up and walk around in it. This effect creates the sensation that they are witnessing events unfold. “I always want people to have a full-bodied, walkaround experience,” she said. “That’s what distinguishes me.”

Stock market visualization
The Wall Street Journal teamed up with Emblematic Group to create a VR/AR live data visualization tool for the U.S. stock market. Photo credit: Emblematic Group

The second element of a de la Peña piece is the content. Much of her work focuses on the plight of “the other.” Her stories use the new medium’s intimacy and immediacy to help viewers form visceral connections to the material and the main characters. “VR,” she explained, “is a tool for trying to get people to understand stories, and each other, better.”

de la Peña surveyed Sundance attendees who viewed her documentary. “Their reactions were extraordinary,” she said. “People knew it was CG [computer-generated images]. They could see that the fidelity was not there and that there were plenty of problems. But the combination of being able to walk through the space and hear the actual audio was effective. They felt like they were really on scene.”

“The other” was the central focus in “Use of Force,” a VR piece about migrant rights that she produced for the Associated Press, Google, and Tribeca. It recreates the death of a Mexican migrant at the hands of U.S. border patrol agents. “After Solitary,” another Emblematic VR short, features Kenny Moore, a former Maine State Prison inmate. At 18, Moore was convicted of aggravated assault, burglary, and theft and sentenced to serve 18 months in prison, but he wound up spending the next 20 years of his life there. Before his release in 2015, Moore spent five-and-a-half years in continuous solitary confinement. The video, which he narrates, takes the viewer back to his solitary cell, where he explains the conditions he endured and how they made readjusting to normal life all but impossible.

Part of de la Peña’s fame can be traced to her preference for controversial subjects. In 2004, her studio, then known as Pyedog Productions, released “Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties,” a full-length documentary film about civil liberties abuses in the post-911 era. The film focuses on the mistreatment, via solitary confinement and torture, of detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Later, she went to Syria to capture the plight of Syrian refugees — many of them children — caught in the chaos and terror of daily rocket attacks.

Three years after the release of “Unconstitutional,” de la Peña teamed up with digital artist Peggy Weil to turn part of that documentary into the interactive VR experience “Gone Gitmo.” The piece included a partial VR replica of the Guantanamo prison, complete with a holding cell that visitors could enter to experience solitary confinement and torture. They hosted the exhibit on Second Life.

Traditional media have been quick to acknowledge de la Peña’s contributions to journalism. In 2015, both Endgadget and The Guardian dubbed her “The Godmother of Virtual Reality,” a moniker that stuck and has since been repeated by Fast Company, Forbes, and Wired magazines. CNET named her one of its 20 Most Influential Latinos in Technology, and Wired included her as one of its #MakeTechHuman Agents of Change. Then, last November, The Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Magazine included her as the top technology innovator in a list of nine leading innovators. Others singled out for their contributions included household names John Legend (entertainment), Ruth E. Carter (design), and Jonah Hill (film).

de la Peña is known for pushing VR filmmaking tools to their limits. Her most ambitious VR film yet, “Greenland Melting,” competed in the Venice Film Festival in 2017, dramatizing evidence that the pace of global warming is accelerating. Produced in collaboration with NOVA and FRONTLINE, the film clocked in at nearly 11 minutes — about twice her average length — and is a technological tour de force. Emblematic built the story by combining 360-degree film footage, shot on scene, with 2D video and thousands of photographs, AI-assisted photo and video processing, and photorealistic CGI. NASA scientists, filmed in 3D with 8i technology, were then added to some of the scenes.

“I’ve seen people break down in tears [after viewing it],” she said. “It’s been shown all over the place.”

Like many women in VR, de la Peña was drawn to the technology the first time she heard about it. Having read Howard Rheingold’s book Virtual Reality in the early ’90s, she recalled, “From what I read in that book, I kind of knew that, well, I want VR to be my future.”

To make the transition to VR possible, de la Peña decided to resume the high school computer science education she had abandoned as a Harvard undergraduate. (She had lacked confidence in her ability at the time.) She taught herself HTML and several computer programming languages while working as a Newsweek correspondent.

Today, de la Peña seems amused by her influence and all the attention she has received. She marvels that the term “immersive journalism,” which she coined awhile back, has caught on. “A lot of people use that now,” she said. “There are a lot of schools that teach immersive journalism. That’s kind of crazy.”

But she manages to give the topic a positive spin for VR. “If I’m getting on the cover of The Wall Street Journal magazine as an innovator, alongside John Legend, Ralph Lauren, and all these crazy, amazing real people,” she said, “then clearly, there’s recognition, internationally, that this is a medium that’s here to stay.”

The Industrialist: Elizabeth Baron

Elizabeth Baron at work
Elizabeth Baron monitors the virtual driving experience of a live participant in the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE) Lab at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, Product Development Center. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company, Inc.

Few people outside of the Ford Motor Company may know of Elizabeth Baron, but inside the automotive giant, she has acquired near rock-star status — and for good reason. Baron, Ford’s virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, is credited with single-handedly helping the Detroit automaker gain as much as a 15-year lead in understanding and implementing VR technology.

She first began exploring VR informally at Ford in 1999, and then formally, with her present title, in 2004. Since then, adoption of the technology has grown from a slow, initial trickle into an ever-increasing flood that has swept through Ford’s global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, where Baron works. From there, it continued across seven regional operations centers around the globe.

In the process, VR has transformed everything at Ford, from vehicle design and development to manufacturing, worker safety training, marketing, and more. Through it all, Baron has personally led the effort, relentlessly pursuing and applying the latest advances in VR technology to expand Ford’s VR capabilities and continuously using her systematic approach to building support for VR within Ford.

Baron is recognized as the principal inventor of the Ford immersive Vehicle Environment (FiVE) Lab, a highly successful space used for VR application design, testing, and development, as well as for preparing, hosting, and staging collaborative immersive vehicle reviews. In 2012, she also developed and successfully demonstrated a VR collaboration technology that has made international design collaborations an everyday occurrence at Ford and a powerful, unifying force for its 166,000-person global corporate team.

“My goal,” Baron said, “has been getting people who have unlike minds [such as right-brained designers and left-brained engineers] to communicate effectively using immersion. And I just went at it and went at it and just did it. I don’t know if I wore people down or what, but I mean it ended up being very good, because now it’s how we do product development in our global product development system.”

Tangible Results

Ford’s VR gains have been impressive. Initially, the company used VR to replace physical vehicle prototyping with virtual modeling in the earliest stages of design, when improvements often can reduce final production costs by as much as 70 percent. VR-based employee training programs have since cut work-related injuries by 70 percent and eliminated 90 percent of all ergonomic issues. VR technology innovations also are credited with producing some of the operational streamlining that enabled the company to announce in 2011 that it had cut seven months off its average four-to-five-year vehicle production schedule.

In early 2018, the French global consulting group Capgemini surveyed the automotive industry and found that only about one in four carmakers worldwide (26 percent) had adopted VR’s “low-hanging fruit,” which it described as “high-benefit/low-complexity” VR applications, such as remote collaboration between design and engineering teams — something Ford began implementing globally, back in 2012.

Meanwhile, Ford continues to make steady progress in realizing some of the most difficult, but promising, of all VR-related capabilities. Capgemini noted that Ford had recently completed a yearlong test of using digital twin vehicles to simulate the real-world environment. Ford also had developed the ability to strip away physical barriers within simulations, to reveal underlying components, structures, and functions.

Yet VR’s biggest impact on the company may have been its ability to unite and inspire its global workforce through repeated exposure to its currently unrivaled ability to provide realistic 3D virtual models of vehicles years before they’re scheduled to roll off assembly lines. The models are unique in two respects: They contain every virtual component, nut, and bolt planned for the actual vehicles, and they react accurately in real time to changing conditions of light and shadow, thanks to a technique known as ray tracing. Ford, Baron said, is currently the only organization anywhere that uses Autodesk® VRED™ 3D visualization software to produce real-time 4K ray tracing.

“I think [these simulations] excite the team,” Baron explained, “because they can holistically see what we’re doing, and how they’re contributing to the success of the vehicle.”

For her success in advancing Ford in VR, Baron became the first nonresearcher — and the first woman — ever to win Ford’s highest individual technical achievement award and employee honor: the Dr. Haren S. Gandhi Research and Innovation Award, named after the legendary Ford engineer and inventor, whose discoveries helped vastly reduce global car emissions.

Baron received the award in 2014, the same year Ford took VR global, adding Baron’s FiVE Labs and collaborative VR technology to its operations centers in Brazil, Germany, Mexico, the U.K., India, and China (the U.S. and Australian regions already had theirs). The honor made Baron an even better-known figure throughout Ford. Today, visitors to Ford’s global website will find Baron’s photo and biography topping a list of 31 exceptional employees whose stories are featured prominently in the site’s careers section.

The Lone Wolf’s Journey

Baron’s success becomes even more impressive once you discover that she did it largely acting on her own, with management encouragement but with little overt support. “I had no staff and no budget,” she explained. “I’m not kidding!”

In 1999, after Baron was approved to be Ford’s unofficial point person in all things VR and received money to outfit Ford’s first VR lab at its Dearborn Product Development Center, she received no assurances that further funds — beyond her paycheck — would be available. And that’s how it stayed for the next 15 years, as Baron worked full time advancing VR. It was as if she were a one-woman expeditionary force that Ford had provisioned — once — and then released into the wild, with instructions to “live off the land” after the original supplies were spent.

Whenever Baron needed to purchase new equipment or make other VR related expenditures, she said she had to “convince somebody of something” to get it. “There were times when the well was dry,” she explained, “and they gave me freedom to innovate.” To Baron, “innovate” meant raising funds unconventionally, outside normal channels. “I had the mentality of a start-up within a multinational,” she said. “I went in other areas of Ford. I convinced people. I got, like, internal seed money, so to speak.”

“Innovate” also could mean going completely outside of Ford for help, if necessary. Baron said her favorite outside partner was NASA. “I could work with them to develop new technology,” she said. “They actually funded some stuff and then, they’d give it back, because that’s what they do.”

In addition to having no staff or money, Baron also had no authority. She was in no position to compel anyone at Ford to do anything — she couldn’t even twist an occasional arm to get someone to try VR modeling at least once. She was neck deep in the persuasion business. And that’s where she stayed.

Baron developed a visionary, longview approach to corraling reluctant department heads into the fold that left little to chance. She was meticulous in her research and strategically shrewd at sales, always gathering information and, in effect, always closing.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Baron’s story is the personal motivation behind much of her fascination with VR technology. Born with a pair of seriously misaligned and uncorrectable eyes, which she said left her with a permanently distorted “really goofy” look on her face, Baron grew up without depth perception but with an optimistic defiance that she would find a way to do the things adults told her she’d never be able to do.

Baron could not see the 3D nature of the virtual environments she was creating at Ford. She took it as a challenge to use science and what she had taught herself about human vision to help her get the settings and calculations right. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of creating stereoscopic, immersive environments that people could see,” she said. “And when they got in it and were like just amazed by all the capability and power of it, that was just really profound to me.”

In 2011 and 2012, Baron took advantage of five decades of medical progress, and this time the corrective surgery worked. Today, she can see in 3D. She recalled the first time she experienced it: “Oh, my gosh. The world was just so different. It was just shocking to me. The beauty, right? It’s like my first snowfall and looking at the trees.”

How has Baron’s new vision affected her VR work? “It led me to realize the importance of all these little micro cues that you get from stereoscopy,” she said, “and I think it’s what led to the very high realism in the physics-based ray tracing that we do now. So, that’s kind of the backstory,” she said. “That’s why I think I go so far to get this stuff right.”

The Futurist: Dr. Jackie Morie

The vegetation-starved, reddish-brown landscape on the north slope of the Mauna Loa volcano, near the center of Hawaii’s Big Island, bears an uncanny resemblance to the lifeless surface of Mars. And, at 8,200 feet above sea level, the air there is thin and cold.

This remote, desolate place is home to the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), an analog habitat, where NASA and the University of Hawaii simulate interplanetary space missions of up to a year’s duration. Trained volunteers from the scientific community leave family and friends behind and come there to serve as stand-ins for astronauts of the future. Their “spaceship” for the duration of their mission is a white, two-story geodesic dome, where they eat, sleep, and breathe in strict adherence to NASA mission guidelines. They never leave the dome except when fully dressed in a hazmat suit. Cut off from the world, they serve as guinea pigs in a grand experiment designed to give NASA the information it needs to help real crews manage and overcome the mental and emotional stresses awaiting them in the cold expanse of space.

Few people’s work would ever bring them to a place like this. But in 2013, Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie’s work did.

Dr. Morie, a Ph.D. and highly published expert in VR and emotive virtual world design, was part of a team of researchers that NASA hired to create Ansible, a VR onboard immersive environment that crew members could use to help relieve their stress from prolonged sensory deprivation and social isolation. Both conditions, Dr. Morie said, occur whenever people find themselves “stuck in a tin can for months … with only their fellow astronauts.”

“Lack of sensory input is one of the big challenges of space travel,” she explained. “In space, you don’t have a lot of the things you take for granted here, on Earth, like gravity, smell, and taste.” The longer people experience the deprivation, she added, the more aware of it they become.

Dr. Morie and her colleagues traveled to the HI-SEAS outpost to install “shipside” hardware essential to the success of their project. They brought a server that housed the virtual worlds and configured it to accept daily updates from another server back in their lab in California. They also brought along a VR headset that crew members could wear to access and explore the virtual worlds.

Ansible offered 37 destinations for the crew to explore. With the headset on, a crew member could investigate a partial, but accurate, recreation of the Gale crater, on Mars; or attend “live” nightclub acts, visit art galleries, wander through nature centers, and enjoy an oceanside breeze and the view from a boardwalk. They also could hang out in a family communications center, watching and preparing messages for loved ones back home.

Dr. Morie’s team applied well-known psychological principles to guide them in the choice and design of some of the destinations. One provided crew members with spaces they could customize and turn into their own private sanctuaries. “We gave them malls filled with virtual furniture and stuff that they could use,” Dr. Morie said, “and they did.”

Once a month, the team produced fun, surprise events for the crew. “We did a 3D capture of Reggie Watts singing a special song for the astronauts, you know, these scientists and would-be astronauts,” Dr. Morie said. “And we put him in the virtual world on a nightclub stage so they could see that.”

HI-SEAS evaluated the project’s effectiveness by comparing answers crew members gave on extensive debriefing and psychological questionnaires and declared the project a success. “They missed things less,” Dr. Morie said, adding, “It would work even better with today’s tools.”

She’ll Know It When She Sees It

Initially trained as an artist and medical illustrator, Dr. Morie was midway through a master’s in fine art in photography at the University of Florida when she first encountered 3D computer graphics. It was the early 1980s and she locked herself “in an engineering library for the summer” to learn all she could about computers — which ultimately led her to complete dual master’s degrees in art and computer science.

By the time she discovered VR and learned it was a medium that invites viewers into the work, she was hooked. “My medium has arrived!” she said. (Dr. Morie had been creating large, poster sized views of fantasy 3D worlds with computer-enhanced photography and providing 3D slide viewers to those interested in viewing the worlds on the inside.)

It was 1989, a time of renewed interest in VR in the Bay Area, and Dr. Morie, a Florida resident, wanted in on it. She finagled a job at a local army research lab, only to find the work terminally boring. She began staying late at night, working on emotive VR projects with an equally bored colleague. Their partnership produced “Virtopia: the Future of Utopia,” a set of disconnected virtual worlds.

One world contained a desert with an oasis pool that doubled as a portal to yet another virtual world. It was designed to invoke thankfulness or calmness. Another contained a 30-foot-tall cartoonish black spider with eight random behaviors that visitors triggered with their actions. A move toward the spider could cause it to flee or charge, producing corresponding heartbeats, in 3D sound. The viewer’s heart would mimic the beat, triggering the corresponding emotion.

Virtopia was shown at the Florida Film Festival ’92 and ’93, she said, making it the first VR experience ever featured at a film festival.

Afterward, Dr. Morie went to work for Disney Feature Animation, where she said she “trained a generation of computer animators.” Then, in 1999, she returned to VR research when she helped the University of Southern California start its Institute for Creative Technologies. Dr. Morie worked at ICT as a senior researcher for the next 14 years, doing “multisensory, cutting-edge research into VR.” During this time, she developed and patented The Scent Collar, a “localized, personal” scent dispenser.

Moving Beyond The Doldrums

By the end of the ’90s, enthusiasm for VR research and investment had once again waned. Dr. Morie calls this period the winter of VR, a time when interest and venture capital funds dry up and the research activity shifts back to colleges and universities. “This is when we build up use cases and validate VR’s effectiveness,” she explained. “It’s not as fallow as people think.

“Sometimes, the work slithers back to the research lab, but that’s where it needs to be. That’s how I’ve been able to stay in the game. That’s how a lot of people stay in the game.” Then, she said, when the next wave comes, those researchers can emerge and say, “Yeah, I know a lot now.”

Today, VR is once more riding a wave, its third wave, in fact. It began in 2014 when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would buy start-up headset manufacturer Oculus for $2 billion dollars. “That made investors stand up like prairie dogs,” Dr. Morie said.

Dr. Morie has made a conscious choice to not pursue any commercial projects. She now does strictly research. “If I’m in the race to make money,” she explained, “I’m not going to be a happy camper. First of all, because I know I won’t make money, and secondly, it’s [a commercial project] not about the future. It’s about now, and I’d rather be thinking about the future.”

Author(s) Information

  • Women Push the Envelope in Virtual Reality virtual reality

    Jon Reisfeld, SWE Contributor