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Why yes, Virginia, there have always been women in VR

Women of VR

A June 8th tweet during the Apple WWDC 2015 celebrated something rare: a longer than usual line at the ladies room. It was widely reported as a sign that more women might finally be getting involved in technology.

This has long been the mantra: not enough women in technical fields, and it seems to be especially true in today’s resurgence of Virtual Reality. Some people are saying it’s no surprise, as VR has always been a man’s game. While it is true that some of the earliest founders of VR, circa 1965, were, in fact, “fathers,” the lesser-known history includes an extensive number of women who made significant contributions to the field. This article celebrates just a few of them and their contributions.

In Fall 1993, the industry publication Virtual Reality Systems ran an article entitled “The Real Women of Virtual Reality: Pioneering on the new frontier.” It explored the advances pioneering women were making early in VR.

The Pioneering Women of VR

 

Beth MarcusBeth Marcus

Inventor and founding CEO of EXOS, a start-up acquired by Microsoft in 1996. She was responsible for the Dexterous Hand Master, one of the most sophisticated input devices available for VR.

 

Ann Lasko-HarvillAnn Lasko-Harvill

Director of Product Design at VPL Research. She designed new user interface paradigms and devices for networked virtual reality including the DataSuit™, a full body system for capturing a person’s movements.

 

Meredith Bricken

A member of the original Cyberspace development team at AutoDesk, starting in 1988! She then joined the venerable Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab at the University of Washington, where she designed VR worlds for the lab’s consortium members.

 

Carolina Cruz-NieraCarolina Cruz-Niera

Co-inventor of the VR CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) that brought a popular form of social VR to the world, sans bulky HMD.

 

Jannick RolandJannick Rolland

Recruited by the University of North Carolina, an early hotbed of VR research and development, to determine how the human visual system operates in VR. She is still working in optics and visual systems today.

 

Carrie HeeterCarrie Heeter

Designs cybermeditation experiences as a professor of Media and Information at Michigan State University. She ran a lab and created works like “Hands over Hawaii” where participants saw their real hands inside of a photorealistic virtual Hawaii.

 

Jacki MorieJacki Mori

My work at the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida in the early 1990s revolved around basic experiments designed to measure how well one could see and wayfind in VR environments. But my personal work was in developing techniques to evoke emotions from VR participants.

 

Joanna AlexanderJoanna Alexander

Founded Zombie Studios, an indie game development shop, after designing a VR game console for Hasbro while working at the David Sarnoff Center.

 

Jennifer Gille

A scientist working on Virtual Perception at SRI International.

Brenda LaurelBrenda Laurel

Founded the VR company Telepresence (with Scott Fisher) in 1988. She also worked at Interval Research, a think tank founded by Paul Allen, and was part of those chosen to work at the Canadian-funded Arts and Virtual Environments Project at the Banff Institute in Alberta.

 

Margaret MinskyMargaret Minsky

Also from Interval Research. She studied haptics and perception for VR.

 

Suzanne Weghorst

She focused on effective and people-oriented VR interfaces at the University of Washington HIT Lab, which she joined at its start in 1989.

Elizabeth Wenzel

A Research Psychologist at NASA Ames Research Center (where she still works today). She headed an auditory lab there and also created the first fully spatialized 3D sound system for VR called the Convolvotron™, sold by her company Crystal River Engineering.

 

Nicole StengerNicole Stenger

Arguably the first female VR artist, making her “VR Movie” Angels at the University of Washington HIT lab in 1989.

 

Rachel StricklandRachel Strickland

Worked with Brenda Laureal at the Banff Centre to create Placeholder, a multi-player, dramatic, immersive VR that emplaced participants in a space of native lore and actions.

 

Diane GromalaDiane Gromala

An artist and designer who used her time at Banff to use VR to take a participant inside a broken body to better understanding its frailty.

 

Margaret Dolinsky

Starting in 1995, produced challenging VR art works designed to produce aesthetic shocks and shifts in our ways of seeing. (She still creates VR art today.)

Josephine Anstey

Also from EVL, she helped to create a fully immersive three-act narrative VR work called The Thing Growing (1999) that provoked a dramatic arc of changing emotions within those who experienced it.

Char DaviesChar Davies

Created the unique immersive experiences Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998). These works were mysterious, poetic, and arguably the most beautiful VR spaces ever made. Drawing on her backgrounds in painting, scuba diving and technology, she placed “experients” (her word) within ethereal settings where one used breath to navigate, and thereby floated weightlessly between transparent and boundless strata of the extraordinary.

Tamiko ThielTamiko Thiel

Used the VR medium to create impactful political statements. Her 1995 work Beyond Manzanar placed participants within the Central California internment camps used to detain Americans of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War. Skillfully weaving newspapers and photos from the habitation days of the camps into 3D reconstructions of the abandoned buildings, and adding haunting audio, Thiel (herself half Japanese) allowed visitors to feel the longing of these unfairly incarcerated people far from their homes.

Zara Houshmand

Thiel’s artistic partner (of Iranian descent). She contributed aspects that underscored the fear of injustice other cultures might feel in America.

Monika FleischmannMonika Fleischmann

Has been creating aesthetic experience spaces, many of them VR-based, since the late 1980s, winning numerous awards and patents for her team’s innovative immersive techniques.

 

Ulrike Gabriel

Her Memory Arena (1999) connected three people in a rich visual and auditory VR space full of memory phantoms that reacted to user behavior.

Agnes Hegedus

Her Handsight put the tracking sensor on one’s hand as an all seeing eye. By placing this “eye” into a seemingly empty large fish bowl, one could see and entire virtual world on a circular project screen on the wall.

Join Us

I encourage readers to do a deep dive on the works of these artists and more. While most of the full interactive works are no longer available, many videos are accessible on the Internet. Watch them, learn from them and invent new ideas! And while it seems women are absent from this resurgence of VR, that story is still being written and there is ample opportunity for more women to become involved. In fact there is a new organization called Women in VR (WiVR) that was formed to recognize those pioneers who are continuing the tradition of inventive VR works, companies, services and ideas, as well as to encourage more women to get involved. We’d love to have you join!

Photo Credit: Bob Elbert, Adam Fenster, G.L. Kohuth, Peter Menzel

About the Scout

Jacki Morie

Jacki Morie has made several innovative VR artworks. Her early 1990s piece Virtopia, was done with Mike Goslin (who later joined the VR team at Disney Imagineering). It was the very first Immersive VR work to be shown at a film festival – The Florida Film Festival in 1992 and 1993. It was designed to evoke emotional responses from participants, as was her 2005 work The Memory Stairs.

4 Comments

  • I’d love to hear from more women from the past, or working in VR now. Let’s get visible! Put your names and work in the comments here for a start!

  • Awesome List Jackie, thanks for doing this! Btw I did immersive VR of sorts in 1995 with my installtion The Box which was widely exhibited (Josh Harris of Silicon Alley era Gardner group got after its exhibition run) here’s a short video ZDF German TV did on it from back then, with my fractal animations inside a head immersive environment. I also made a 3d and virtual version of the performance I used to do then with my animations for the web, was the featured artist for the launch of Dotcom Gallery and International Forum for the Digital Arts, which was the first digital art gallery on the internet back then and sponsored in part by Prodigy Inc. Some of the gif anims I did, which were virtual reconstructions of the live performance piece in 3d cg, ended up as one of the first 100 gif anims back then and were listed on a site called Internet Pioneer Hall for many years. Here’s the short video which shows the Box (head Immersive), my desolid canvases, the performance etc by ZDF.

  • Loved this overview! At my first company, ION, my first “immersive product” was for Brian Eno – it shipped with anaglyphic glasses (1994/5). It was supposed to be generative but sadly time restraints hampered that side… We also developed a custom scanner rig to ingest Ray Zone’s extensive stereoscopic image library for Ray Zone’s 3DWorld; we built physics engines for 3D first person fly-throughs on-top of music for our enhanced CD products. Later I advised and helped build DEMO winner shoot and share virtual tour platform: TourWrist/Sphere which is now living over at Google PhotoSphere. This wave of VR is qualitatively different – but required all the amazing women who you highlight (and more!) Keep spreading the word and shinning the light on pioneers.

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