Virtual Reality: An Unlikely Ally in the Dialog on Gender Bias

Image by Samuel Zeller

Image by Samuel Zeller

Amid the continued failure of tech companies to improve the diversity of their leadership teams (and frequently their overall employee base), virtual reality (VR) seems like an unlikely technology partner to champion gender equality.  Largely owned and operated by men with experiences focused on gaming and sports, the world of VR feels like the epitome of male dominance.

So when I recently attended a Meetup on Women and Diversity in VR and AR for San Francisco Women in Technology, I was pleasantly surprised to see a truly innovative and socially critical VR experience called UTURN.

UTURN is the brainchild of Creative Director and Executive Producer, Nathalie Mathe.  A NASA scientist and artificial intelligence expert turned story teller and movie maker, Nathalie is uniquely positioned to push the boundaries of VR as a story telling medium and to speak with authority on the gender-based world views in today’s business and technology environments. Other members of the creative team include Justin Chin, co-creator/cinematographer, and Ryan Lynch, writer/director.

The Story:  Content with Impact

UTURN is a VR experience that puts you directly in the shoes of a woman working in a tech startup.  Participants can be part of the experience from either the male or the female perspective and control when they change perspectives. 

The comedic series hits close to home.  It focuses on a young female coder named Ray who joins a tech company in crisis and needs to work with her male teammates to fix critical problems with their system before a big VC funding meeting the next day. As the website tells us, “Each episode illustrates various gender issues pertaining to different stages in Ray’s career: being valued and heard, being promoted, getting support while raising a family, being recognized as a leader, raising funds as an entrepreneur, etc.” 

While the story is told with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, as a women who grew up in tech I can tell you that I witnessed a number of these situations firsthand over the years.  I’ll let the trailer speak for itself. 

I love this experience because it’s built to really leverage the capabilities of VR.  The viewer turns from side to side to hear each part of the story.  Just like real life, when you’re participating in one side of the conversation, you’re not hearing the other side and your perception of reality is being formed by the interactions that you’re part of.

The team designed UTURN for use in small group settings to encourage discussion in a safe space after watching.   Initial target audiences are tech company employees and C-suite execs, media companies and colleges.  The general public may also benefit from UTURN by having affinity groups use VR social media platforms to view and subsequently discuss episodes.

Why It Works:  The Technology Behind the Story

Nathalie and the team tested many ideas to understand how to create an immersive and friendly experience. 

Since the purpose of the show is to start a dialog between men and women, the experience needs to be compelling for both genders.  This is achieved by creating an entertaining story and characters, as well as an engaging way of showing it.  In testing the experience, the team learned that men need control over which part of the story to watch – they do not like being in the woman’s role without an option to change.  Women, on the other hand, want a way to share their daily experiences with others who don’t necessary understand them.

In this uncharted territory, the team's additional observations and lessons about making the technology work for viewers give us some best practices in building a great VR experience. 

  • The experience is in the first person so that participants are embodied in the story.   This required some specific filming techniques, including designing a special camera rig that uses fish eye lenses to provide a full body experience and to allow for a large field of view.
Custom camera for VR content
  • Sound design is critical in VR.  You can get by with even monoscopic video as long as the sound is 3D.  In order for viewers to hear only the scene they are watching, UTURN sound designers created a unique spatial sound design.
Creating 3D sound for VR content
  • Video editing was particularly challenging for this piece.  Since there are two simultaneous stories and points of view, the stories need to be synchronized so that the participant can move seamlessly from one to another.
Editing in VR for effective storytelling

Taking Action:  How Can I Get It?

Nathalie and her colleagues are submitting the first episode to festivals and showing it at Meetups with great response to date.  Ideally, it will soon go up for online viewing on the Oculus store and other app markets and the team will ultimately raise enough funding to get all the episodes on Hulu or another popular platform.

For now, you can request a screening and check out their Facebook page for more information.

Note:  The San Francisco Women in Tech Meetup was started by Goretti Campbell as an antidote to her frustration at attending Bay Area technology events and seeing few women in the audience and virtually none on panels.  The group builds community and provides a diverse forum to discuss leading edge technology issues.