Kickass women of VR interview 3: Annie Eaton, Cofounder & CEO of ATLvr

"One of the best parts about being in the midst of these technological advances is the ability to share them with other people"

We’ve been busy interviewing some of the most interesting women in virtual reality, starting with Oculus Feminist Emily Eifler and Microsoft Evangelist Liv Erickson. This is the third interview in our series, talking to the brilliant Annie Eaton.

Annie founded her own company, ATLvr, to offer consulting, program development and interactive experiences in virtual reality. One of its main goals is to educate the Atlanta technology (and non-technology) communities and build a virtual reality hub on the East Coast of the US. So far, it’s been pretty successful.

One of Annie’s first VR projects was a fashion program called VRrunway. By filming a designer’s collection in 3D and then importing it to a virtual environment, the user could ‘sit’ at the end of the runway and take in the entire line at a private showing.

A woman of many talents, Annie has also worked in the medical, sports, entertainment and manufacturing fields, and is looking to expand into law enforcement and education in the coming months. We couldn’t wait to speak to her.

Hi Annie. How did you get started with VR?

My first introduction to VR was actually by my company’s cofounder, Peter Stolmeier.  He was an original Kickstarter backer of the Oculus DK1 and brought it into our office (we used to work at the same company). He was showing it around and I thought it would be cool to try – and it was.

What inspired you to join the industry?

Aside from the cool technology and anticipation of something great to come, I really caught the bug from Peter. I actually interviewed with Oculus in spring 2014, which furthered my interest. That was moving slowly and I wanted to get involved as soon as possible, so Peter and I founded the Atlanta VR Meetup. From there, we started getting consulting jobs, and then paying consulting jobs.  It turned out to be so fun and interesting that I wanted to make a career out of it – and here I am.

How has working in the industry changed your initial thoughts on VR?

I think when I first tried VR, I knew it was going to be something cool, but now that I’ve worked with it for a while, I think it’s life changing. My joy is applying virtual reality to unsuspecting industries. So many of our clients, and others I’ve talked to, only think of this technology for gaming. That’s an excellent use – don’t get me wrong – but there are so many untapped markets just waiting to be opened up to the possibilities. It blows me away!

One of my favourite projects we’ve done is VRrunway. a program we created for the fashion industry. We filmed an Atlanta fashion designer’s 2015 collection in 3D, with live models, and imported that into a virtual environment.  We ended up actually premiering the program at a live fashion show for VIPs and they were so excited.  I just love showing it to people who don’t even understand this technology exists.

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

I can see that the industry is rapidly growing, which is great for us! All of us – consultants, hardware, and software creators alike. My company has been around for about a year now and it’s amazing what we’ve already been able to accomplish, even before the technology has hit the consumer market. The next year is going to be insane with the consumer releases of multiple HMDs (head-mounted displays – aka VR headsets) but I’m excited and ready. I’d say in the next year I’d like to get more involved in additional education and training applications. There are some good opportunities out there so hopefully we’ll land them.

Any interesting lessons learnt so far?

Yes, don’t hire freelancers without properly vetting them…  I learnt that one the hard way. A friend of a friend’s referral seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out horribly. We even saw their portfolio and from the surface it looked right, but I didn’t qualify them as thoroughly as I should have. It ended up costing us valuable time and effort spent for a horribly botched job! Luckily we got another person in time, but still money wasted for no good reason.

Also, a lot of people I’ve met ask me for jobs on the spot. It’s kind of a surreal experience, but at every event I’ve been to, at least a few people will ask me for a job. The good news is that people are interested in getting involved with the industry, and it’s always awesome to have some qualified and interested people in the wings.

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

I’ve had a few times where I feel like I’m not getting taken seriously, but the “boys’ club” is changing and we’re making room for more women in the field. The main example in my mind was at a start-up event in Atlanta. We were at the bar for drinks and networking after a Q&A/mentor session, where my male Creative Director and I had asked several questions.

From finding out what we do, some people came up and said “Hey, you guys are the VR people, right?” and of course, we both enthusiastically said yes!  At that point, they directed all their conversation, questions and attention to my Creative Director and started asking him questions about the business and his processes. It kind of offended me that they assumed he was in charge of everything and I was just along for the ride, but luckily he picked up the signs and said “well you should ask Annie, she’s in charge of all this.” (Proud moment there!)  

I think it makes all the difference when my team respects me and will stick up for me, so I’m selective and fortunate in that respect.

What are your goals?

Where do I begin? I want to make Atlanta a known and respected hub for virtual reality on the East Coast. I’d love to get more involved in training and educational applications. A long term goal is to touch every industry somehow with our virtual reality work. There are so many more goals, but those are the big ones!

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

Annie's project, VRrunway

I think the consumer market will hop on board as the technology is readily available. I think that although the HTC Vive is awesome and probably a more interactive headset, the Oculus Rift will sell more devices just because of their price point and mass popularity. I think mobile VR will be primarily used for video and maybe a few games, but the lack of positional tracking is going to leave it in the dust.

I think hardware and computer prices may even come down to adapt to the necessity of a beefy machine. I think everyone and their mother will at least have tried VR and every company will have an application or program (just like websites in the late 90s or apps in the mid-late 00s).

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

I would say go for it! It’s an exciting and ever-changing field and you will never be bored, that’s for sure.  The only advice would be to prove yourself and don’t listen to haters. My favourite thing to say to haters is: “maybe you should hustle as hard as you hate.”

If you earn your position in life, there’s nothing you can be upset about, and nothing others can say to bring you down.

Which women in VR do you admire?

This might sound bad, but I don’t believe I’ve ever met any, at least not in person. I guess that shows how big of a gap there really is. I will say that I got very excited when it was announced that Mary Lou Jepsen was joining the Oculus team. Not only because she’s female, but because she’s extremely qualified in her technical and professional backgrounds.

What are your favourite bits of VR tech?

Right now it’s the Oculus DK2. It’s been so great to develop for and is a wonderful example of the possibilities and the future of VR. I also can’t wait to get my hands on that Virtuix Omni treadmill. We have a few things we want to do with it, so that’s a highly anticipated item for me!

As far as VR experiences go… favourites for me are Guided Meditation VR, Apollo 11, Technolust, Evade VR, and the classic Titans of Space. All of those are wonderful not only to experience, but to show to others. One of the best parts about being active in the midst of these technological advances is the ability to share them with other people, and those are all great examples of what is possible in VR.

Want to hear more from Annie? Follow her on Twitter here: @anniearete

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

Images: Annie Eaton