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
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.
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.
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.
Co-inventor of the VR CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) that brought a popular form of social VR to the world, sans bulky HMD.
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.
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.
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.
Founded Zombie Studios, an indie game development shop, after designing a VR game console for Hasbro while working at the David Sarnoff Center.
A scientist working on Virtual Perception at SRI International.
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.
Also from Interval Research. She studied haptics and perception for VR.
She focused on effective and people-oriented VR interfaces at the University of Washington HIT Lab, which she joined at its start in 1989.
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.
Arguably the first female VR artist, making her “VR Movie” Angels at the University of Washington HIT lab in 1989.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Thiel’s artistic partner (of Iranian descent). She contributed aspects that underscored the fear of injustice other cultures might feel in America.
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.
Her Memory Arena (1999) connected three people in a rich visual and auditory VR space full of memory phantoms that reacted to user behavior.
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.
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!