Women in virtual reality: Lean in

VR is a technology poised to change our world, but it has a dark side.

(Image via Oculus' Facebook page).
(Image via Oculus' Facebook page).

A girl walks into a room of 98 male engineers, programmers, gamers, and a couple of literal rocket scientists. There is one other female in the room, and she happens to be a spouse.

This isn’t the start of a joke. This was my first experience at a meetup of virtual reality enthusiasts in the Durham/Research Triangle area, the epicenter of the technology industry in North Carolina.

I was trying to find a partner to work with on a project to recreate the U.S. Supreme Court. A concept I was building for a legal client, the idea was that kids, law students, or anyone interested in learning more about our country’s highest court could tour the building in VR, calling up stats and graphics to learn more about the Judiciary.

As I met people in the VR space and learned more, I fell in love with the technology. Why?

VR fascinates me for its ability to provide immersive learning experiences that can be more memorable and impactful than any in 2D, and the tech shows great promise for marketing, as well as many other fields.

This was underscored when my company unveiled our own branded VR experience – one of the first of its kind in our industry – at a tradeshow. Results included favorable survey feedback, a spike in web and social traffic, plus a 354% spike in resumes as compared to other hiring rounds. Not bad.

Fast forward
More than a year after my first meetup, I attended the VR World conference in London. In just the two short years of its existence, VR World has more than doubled its registrants; growth that underscores how hot this sector is.

The range of technologies showcased at the event – from lightweight headgear projecting 3D architectural renderings into the space in front of you to haptic tech teaching dentists how a Novocain syringe feels when in a patient’s jaw – took my breath away and revealed how very fast this industry is moving.

It won’t be long before headsets are wireless, ubiquitous, and almost as light as sunglasses.

I was pleased to see some women at the event, but there were not many. While there was a short panel discussion on how to increase women’s participation in the industry, overall very few speakers or panelists were women, and even fewer were exhibitors.

One moment was particularly telling. During a session, the lone female panelist mentioned that assaults are occurring inside virtual worlds at such a rate that protective tech is being studied to create immediate distance because virtual worlds can be so realistic it may not occur to the victim to take her headset off--and frankly, should she have to? This got me thinking.

While technology that moves us from 2D to immersive communications is going to profoundly change innumerable industries -- it is going to change the world -- the only question is, will it be for the better?

Lean in
VR has a dark side. Just as the internet has been used for good as well as evil from the very beginning, VR that glorifies violence and the objectifying of women is growing. While I’m under no illusion that involving more women in the industry will completely change this, I think it will influence outcomes for the better, so why not try?

Considering how profoundly this tech is likely to impact us all in years to come, women need a voice and representation, and to have this, they must lean in.

But the VR industry must lean in to meet them. The industry must reach out to Girls Who Code and other groups that foster love for technology among young women. VR-teaching programs being developed at schools should have the recruitment and training of women hard-coded into their strategies and curriculum. Conferences should actively seek more women speakers and panelists.

With VR in its infancy, we have an unprecedented opportunity to expand women’s involvement in ways that other technologies have failed to do. Even small but fundamental changes can matter.

During the first half of the first day of VR World, the front door to the ladies’ restroom was locked. A queue of glum women formed by a solitary disabled restroom while watching male colleagues mingling and running to the next lightning-quick session. My neighbor in line turned to me, resigned, and said, "I guess they didn’t think any girls would show up."

Girls are starting to show up, and there are myriad ways the industry can rise to meet us.

Right now, I’ll settle for just an unlocked women’s restroom, but with two young daughters who are mesmerized by VR and want to learn more, I won’t settle for long.

Helen Bertelli is VP of Infinite Global Consulting, an international PR, branding, and content agency.

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