Kickass women of VR interview 6: Ariana Alexander – Character Developer, Animator, AI expert

"This industry is still brand new. We're only just beginning, so it's not too late to make a difference."

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Can you believe we’re already six interviews into our Kickass Women of VR series? You’ll find the others here – so many incredible ladies doing amazing things in the industry.

For this section of the series, we’re concentrating on the TimeFire VR team, who are busy building the world’s first virtual reality city. It’s called Hypatia, and it’s ridiculously cool.

This week’s interview is with Ariana Alexander, a multi-talented artist working across character development, animation and AI. When she first discovered virtual reality, she was so enraptured with wandering around and watching the leaves flow past her face that she forgot she was in a game and was killed almost instantly when monsters came for her. Well, we’ve all been there.

When it came to interviewing for a job as an animator with TimeFire, Ariana didn’t actually know she was applying for a job in VR. All she had was the job heading: ‘Oculus, Blender, Unreal (Scottsdale)’. “Oculus” meant something to her, so she sent the email.

In the intervening year, Ariana’s been “stumbling about and falling on my face figuring out how to be an amazing artist while working and learning closely with my teammates.” Here’s what happened when we caught up with her.

Hi Ariana! Can you tell us about your first introduction to VR?

As a Student Volunteer at SIGGRAPH, I had an opportunity to attend demos and talks that exist only for volunteers. One of these was a demo for the Oculus Rift and the Razer Hydra motion detection controller system. After the two representatives from Oculus and Sixense finished introducing themselves, they set up the toys. We all gathered round to watch as one of the two men and one of the Student Volunteer Chairs sat down at two computers placed side by side, each set up with a Hydra and an Oculus, and put on the headset to play some basketball.

As we watched, one guy picked up the ball and tossed it from hand to hand, moving the Hydra controllers he gripped in his hands as he did. He then attempted to make a pass. This was the most interesting part, because his partner failed to receive the pass. He wasn’t ready for it, and he dropped the ball. If that wasn’t cool enough, I mean, the guy just dropped the ball. With his hands. In a video game. But yes, the coolest part was when, after dropping the ball, he did what anyone would do when they drop a basketball in real life. He turned his head to watch the ball as it bounced past him. And voiced a “Whoa!” as he did so. We echoed him. Until this point no one had turned their head with their headset on, so it hadn’t clicked in my brain why this was cool. Then it all made sense. That was my first exposure to VR.

What inspired you to join the VR industry?

Initially, I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as a VR industry. My only goal in life was to be an animator. My opportunity to do this came after I responded to TimeFire VR’s Craigslist ad. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I hung around, and made a pest of myself. I asked a ton of questions, and I was very nosy. I stole their secrets for creating 3D assets in Blender, and cackled while plotting world domination in my corner.

After about a month or so of enduring this, when they realised they couldn’t get rid of me and I wouldn’t go away, they put me on the payroll. I learned more about the industry as a consequence of working in it. I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, but then again, no one did, so it didn’t matter. We would learn together.

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

Working in the VR industry has been one surprise after another. The reason for this, for me at least, is how far the technology has come in just a single year. When I first joined Timefire, VR was going to be a seated and tethered experience. Now, there are capabilities for 100% mobile VR with no wires and it streams through your cellphone.

I can go home and tell my family what I’ve been doing at work and they will actually understand what I’m talking about, because I can show them in VR. That has drastically changed our scope as a company, and we’ve had to shift gears over and over again as new software and hardware companies continue  making things that will ultimately make VR more awesome. We’re not limited to a single platform anymore.

Have you been a part of projects that have blown you away?

Hell yes. I’ve been a part of an ongoing project for the past year now building a virtual city. The best part is that it’s actually starting to look like a city. It’s huge to see all of the pieces come together in the same setting, pieces that I had a part in building. It makes all those hours spent toiling away at my computer modeling, along with 2-3 other people all doing the same thing, all the more worth it.

Normally it takes a much larger team to accomplish what we have. I think a lot of people forget that one of the hardest and most time consuming things about anything in the arts, but especially Computer Graphics, is building the environment. Once it’s put together, it’s easy to take it for granted. I no longer have this problem.

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

Right now, my career consists of developing a broad range of skills, from art production, to animation, to AI programming for non-playable characters (NPCs). However, in addition to that, I think what I want the most for my career is a chance to make amazing art for people who play our game to be inspired by, the same way I was inspired by games and animation in the years leading up to this point. I want the opportunity to make characters that people will remember for years to come. Characters that people connect with in some way, possibly.

I want people to turn to one another and say “Hey, do you remember that one goofy character from that VR game by Timefire? I fucking love that guy!” I want people to cry tears of joy from the overwhelming beauty of it all. I would hope they were tears of joy. It wouldn’t be good if they weren’t. As far as the industry goes, I would like to see it grow. I want to see more nerds like us here in Arizona. It’s lonely out here all by ourselves. And I can’t wait to see the impact VR has on education! Not just here, but everywhere!

Any interesting lessons learnt so far?

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned, and I’m sure my comrades would agree, is that you don’t need a degree to make VR. I don’t regret going to school because I gained other things from being there besides the knowledge that I found in class. Going to school helped me by forcing me to become good at adapting quickly to new situations. What you do need is a steady internet connection and enough time and determination to learn. The majority of the things that I’m doing now are largely self-taught.

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

Actually, no. What I do experience is 1) utter confusion – half the time, I have to struggle to explain what it is I do for a living to the average person – and 2) amazement/admiration at the fact that I do the things that I do. Most people when they ask what I do, expect me to say something along the lines of “I’m a sales clerk at such and such restaurant.” They don’t expect me to say what I usually say, which is “I’m a game designer for a virtual reality company.” And 3) overwhelming support. I’ve heard horror stories about women who have been flamed online, and I can honestly say that I have been extremely fortunate in that regard.

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

It’s going to explode. It’s going to explode all over everything. You’re going to be cleaning it out of your carpet for weeks. It’s going to be messy. In all seriousness, it’s going to be exciting. I have no idea what to expect.

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

I would encourage other women to do what makes them happy, whether that be in VR or elsewhere. I think the best advice I can offer is to dive in and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s a part of life. The only thing you can do is try. Try like you mean it. This industry is still brand new. We’re only just beginning, so it’s not too late to make a difference.

Which women in VR do you admire?

Nonny De La Peña who does VR journalism, and Jody Medich with Leap Motion. Both are very awesome women who are doing extraordinary things that blow my mind

What have been your best experiences of VR so far?

I was fortunate enough to attend the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) and crafty enough to sniff out the secret room where Oculus was conducting demos for the Crescent Bay. I got to see Lost twice, and it was beautiful both times. I think the best simulation I saw was the one that they saved for last. There’s just something about standing 4 feet tall in the middle of a cave on top of a mound of treasure, in plain view of a 50 foot dragon that really puts things into perspective. I mean, my feet are planted, so I can’t run. I can’t talk so I can’t negotiate. Because of my failure to take any action, the simulation ends with my vision, and essentially my body being engulfed in flames as the dragon rightfully torches my sorry ass for daring to set foot in his lair. I must be a glutton for punishment, because I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Want to hear more from Ariana? Follow her on Twitter: @aialexander3.

As always, we’ll be back with more inspiration from the awesome women taking the VR industry by storm.


All images: Ariana Alexander