Kickass women of VR interview 2: Liv Erickson – VR Evangelist at Microsoft

"The Matrix is my office"

We had some excellent feedback from our interview with Emily Eifler, the Oculus Feminist, and now it’s time for round 2 of our chats with the leading women in virtual reality. This time it’s Liv Erickson, Virtual and Augmented Reality Evangelist at Microsoft, home of the awesome Hololens.

Liv got into VR after seeing a video of Oculus on YouTube, which led to learning Unity and web development, then amassing a collection of VR headsets as her interest grew. She diligently documents the process on her blog.

Before long, she was building VR apps and writing tutorials, and was ready to turn her passion into a full-time career. She joined the team at Microsoft, and now also gives talks about VR and the industry – in fact, she’s just back from teaching a week-long ‘Intro to VR’ course at a university in Germany.

Do you remember your first introduction to VR?

Virtual reality in science fiction has always been fascinating to me – the authors of these stories would generally paint pictures of a dystopian society where VR was an escape, and I wanted to fall through the pages despite whatever horrible thing was happening in the world so I could try out the tech.

I read ‘Ready Player One’ back in 2011 and it seemed like the coolest kind of adventure. I watched The Matrix over and over again. Discovering VR makes everyone feel a little bit like Neo, I think.

What inspired you to join the VR industry?

I started following Oculus a few years back. I was watching the second YouTube video that VirtuAlly of PixelWhipt released when I had this true lightbulb moment where I realised that it was something I could start building. I hadn’t done any game or 3D programming at the time, but I knew I wanted in. A few weeks after that, I went to my first Silicon Valley Virtual Reality meetup and got to try the DK 2 for the first time as part of a Star Wars demo. Being able to lightsaber train in VR was, quite literally, a dream come true for me, and I never looked back.

Whole worlds are inside here. Image: Microsoft Hololens

How has working in the industry changed your initial thoughts on VR? Have you been a part of projects that have blown you away?

Working in the industry has made me a little more realistic about the technology and how much still can be done to improve the experience. The first time I tried the DK 2, I was completely suspending reality as part of the demo and it felt like magic to me. Being in the industry removes that a little bit, but you also have times where you get to see something truly amazing and all that feeling of magic comes back.

I’ve seen a lot of great demos, but what’s really surprised me the most is how quickly kids want to adopt it as a technology. I’ve worked with students as young as 10 years old on Unity, and some of them were installing the Oculus runtime and SDK and adding VR support into their games. The creativity there is astonishing.

Any interesting lessons learnt so far?

Aside from the really interesting technical challenges that come with virtual reality development, I’ve learned so much about how we as humans interact with technology and how VR has the opportunity to improve that.

What would you like to see happen within the industry in the next year?

I think there’s a lot of room for growth in how we interact with each other and improve the culture. There’s a lot of good being done with experiences being built, but there’s still a lot of sentiment that women aren’t interested in VR and I would like to see that change.

We’re on the forefront of an entirely new paradigm for Human-Computer Interaction, and learning about how we use spatial memory in the physical world and how translate that into digital interactions has been fascinating.

Have you had any difficulties along the way with being a woman in VR?

I think the biggest problem I’ve faced is that I don’t always feel that I can speak up about issues I see. Right now, women are incredibly underrepresented in VR and a common statement I hear is that “women just aren’t interested” in it.

I’ve spoken to developers who say it’s not their responsibility to make games for everyone, and that the lack of diversity is our choice because they see the industry as being much more welcoming than other areas in tech. This has certainly not been my experience, and I think having the attitude that there’s nothing to fix will be problematic in the future if things don’t change.

Minecraft in your living room? Yes please. Image: Microsoft Hololens

What are your goals?

I have two VR apps that I’m working on right now that I’d love to ship within a year. One is at a stage where I could probably release it for phones, but I’m not quite satisfied with it yet. Releasing KittenVR was my first adventure into solo development and I learned a lot, and I’m hoping to build off that for the next projects. I want to inspire a new generation of developers to start playing around with the medium, and help people see the huge potential that virtual reality has for us.

With 2016 set to be a huge year for VR, where do you see it heading in the next couple of years?

The mission statement of Microsoft used to be “A computer on every desk and in every home.” We now have computers that we carry in our pockets, not just on our desks, and I think that VR is heading the same way. I doubt we’ll see that in 2016 – but I’ve shown my Oculus to my kid cousins and my grandparents, and the reaction is always wonder, amazement, and “How do I get this?”

It’s not just an add-on for gamers – this technology is very much going to change the entire way that we think of computing.

Would you encourage other women to look into a career in the VR tech industry? Do you have any advice for them?

I would absolutely encourage other women interested in VR to get involved! I think that we’re just starting to see the beginnings of the growth that the industry will experience, and it’s just plain fun to work on. You’ll be learning skills that apply to so many other industries – computer graphics, product management, 3D modelling and design, to name a few.

Virtual reality is an amazing mix of creativity and technology – my advice to anyone interested in learning is to just start building. Unity and Unreal have great resources for learning how to build within a game engine. Choose a tool and learn it by building something. The early things you build might be terrible (mine were!), but that’s how you figure out how to build something good.

Which women in VR do you admire?

I fully credit my “aha! I’m joining this industry” moment to Ally over at PixelWhipt. Her passion for sharing VR made me realise that it was time for me to act on mine, and she presents in such an engaging way through her YouTube channel. She’s also working on creating 360-degree video content, which I’m really excited for.

Also, Jody Medich’s talks on spatial memory and 3D computing fundamentally changed the way I think about VR – her work with understanding how we interact with our devices in comparison to our physical world is really what inspired me to investigate the way interaction will evolve with the advent of consumer VR.

What have been your best experiences in VR?

Trying out the FOVE headset at GDC was one of the moments that I’ll never forget – being able to shoot lasers out of my eyes was not only something straight out of science fiction, it was empowering in a way that I don’t think I can do justice to! The ability to use my eyes as a tool for navigating throughout a scene was unbelievable and something you don’t really get to experience in the physical world.

The first time I got to try the Oculus Crescent Bay prototype, I actually ended up on the floor hiding from the giant machine that was throwing things at me! I forgot that I was in a room tethered to a computer, and got a huge adrenaline rush from it.

KittenVR wasn’t a fancy demo, but the first time that I put on my Oculus and saw a world I had envisioned and built in front of me was really magical. There’s something about building for VR that feels incredible – I don’t really know of any other technology where you can step into an actual world that you’ve created and look around and see what you brought to life.

Want to hear more from Liv? Follow her on Twitter here: @misslivirose

We’ll be back soon with another interview with one of the amazing women making the future of VR happen. Watch this (virtual) space.