There’s no longer any doubt that virtual reality (VR) is poised to revolutionize the world. Though the technology got off to a rocky start last decade, experiences have improved and prices lowered to the point that the technology has turned from a novelty into a potentially transformational tool. Even so, as of last year only about 1 in 5 Americans had ever even tried on a VR headset — meaning that there are significant opportunities for growth in the space.
Whether it’s for a “traditional” purpose like gaming, something a bit more adventurous such as digital travel, or a cutting edge experience like VR college classes, the opportunities for innovation are growing by the day. And, despite tech’s notorious reputation as a primarily male industry, it’s women that are leading the charge this time around. Here’s how they’re managing to do it:
The “Godmother” of Virtual Reality
No discussion about how women are changing VR can take place without a mention of Nonny de la Peña, founder and CEO of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality company Emblematic. Appropriately dubbed the “Godmother of VR,” de la Peña was one of the first people to recognize just how compelling virtual reality experiences could be — and just how widespread their appeal might one day become.
By working on experiences ranging from a showcase of climate change’s impact on the landscape of Greenland to a harrowing look into the realities of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, de la Peña and Emblematic laid the groundwork for later VR innovators hoping to compel people in the same way that they did. The ultimate power of VR will always rest in its uncanny ability to recreate genuine experiences, and all future entrepreneurs, artists, and visionaries looking to use the medium to that extent will have no choice but to take inspiration from their “godmother.”
Solving Old Problems in New Ways
The buzzwords around VR can make it sound like a slick, futuristic technology for slick, futuristic people, but the fact of the matter is that it’s ultimately a tool — a tool with the remarkable ability to transport people to new and exciting places. It was that realization that led Sarah Hill to create Healium, a company dedicated to helping people improve their focus, sleep, and human performance through virtual and augmented reality.
Hill, who herself has suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks, saw that popular neurofeedback treatments for anxiety could be recreated and even made more accessible through virtual reality headsets. Healium’s capabilities are wide-ranging, encompassing everything from taking elderly veterans on VR tours of war memorials to helping athletes improve their performance by learning to self-regulate their brain patterns. The goal here was never to reinvent the wheel: it’s to allow people an easier way to engage with treatments they may not have had access to otherwise.
Uncharted Frontiers for Empathy
“Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” was always a figure of speech — until VR made it more possible than ever. The opportunity to don a headset and enter into a completely new experience is one full of promise, and women leaders are finding out just how far it can go.
Morgan Mercer had always believed that others might have greater empathy for her experiences in the workplace as a biracial woman if they could just see what she has seen; VR gave her the opportunity to make that happen. It was for this reason that Mercer founded Vantage Point, a company offering workplace diversity and equity training through the medium of VR. Vantage Point puts employees straight into situations where they’re forced to confront their own prejudices and beliefs — what other format allows for such poignant training opportunities?
The belief that empathy could effect positive change was also the driving force behind Carrie Shaw, the founder of Embodied Labs. Through her experiences watching her mother suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Shaw knew firsthand the difficulties of caring for someone undergoing something you seemingly can’t understand. Embodied Labs’s VR experiences allow caregivers to step into the shoes of patients suffering from hearing loss, macular degeneration, or other chronic conditions that can have an outsize impact on behavior and wellbeing.
It’s easier to provide top-quality care to someone when you can recall back to exactly how you felt when you were simulating their experience; in that sense, VR can serve as a reference for caregivers, something to use in order to better understand a patient. The same principle is true for on-the-job equity training through VR: if there’s a visceral situation to which you can call back, you’ll feel much better equipped to navigate a 21st century office effectively.
Make no mistake: every industry is currently being led and overhauled through the efforts of women leaders. Their impact on VR, though, goes all the way from the origins to the present. As the technology continues to evolve, it will be innovators like these who help make it happen.